We live in an era of assertions. We loudly proclaim “the truth,” forgetting that it’s really only “our truth.” When others—obviously less enlightened—air their truth, well, we comment and/or tweet until our restless, trembling fingers can comment and/or tweet no more. In this world of faux Internet friendship, we increasingly choose to forego disagreement entirely by simply blocking those who disagree with us. Dissent feels too stressful. We’d rather harangue the opposition than acknowledge that we may have an incomplete perspective as well.
So the cycle goes, until our social media feeds become extremist echo-chambers, until one interacts with the Other so rarely that they might as well live on another planet. That there must be a better way is the bold assertion of Jason Jay and Gabriel Grant in Breaking Through Gridlock: The Power of Conversation in a Polarized World. By the time I finished, I grew convinced that the ability to engage others—like any skill—can be improved through training, and that Jay and Grant have outlined a forward-path to (1) improve our ability to hold productive conversations and (2) improve the ability of activists to reach those whom they had previously pigeonholed as hopelessly close-minded (or, perhaps, “deplorable”).
The book begins by noting that getting a “stuck conversation” unstuck isn’t about finding “the right thing to say.” It’s about making a deeper shift—a shift in who we are. By changing our way of being so that we’re more open and less closed, more of a listener and less of a talker, we alter how we engage others. We engage as conversation partners rather than jousters. As psychological research on reciprocity bears out, this opening-up subconsciously triggers a tit-for-tat response in our ideological opponents, until reflective gridlock breaks down and battle lines soften enough to give mutual understanding a fighting chance.
Key to Jay and Grant’s strategy is the intuition that we usually agree on values; therefore, if we wish to persuade others we should engage from a place of shared values instead of fussy quibbling over facts. Put concretely, perhaps we can’t agree that gun control is prudent, but we can agree that murder is a bad thing. By using that shared value, “life,” as a starting point—in place of a conclusion like “gun laws should be more/less strict”—we give the conversation space to grow instead of triggering defensive gridlock at the outset.
One reason gridlock is so personally troubling is because I’ve witnessed the power of engagement in my own life. During my final year at Harvard Law School, I served as editor-in-chief of the school’s student newspaper during a time of protest bordering on campus turmoil. Student activists occupied the law school lounge and issued a series of demands, some of which were eventually met. As the Harvard Law Record’s editor-in-chief, I was in a position which encouraged me to engage many of these students, and my perspective shifted as a result. While I disagreed with the students on their more illiberal strategies—especially when I felt they were unfairly pigeonholing nuanced, good-faith opposition—I came to empathize with their dissatisfaction. My perspective shifted because I dropped pretense and admitted a painful truth: My perspective was an incomplete perspective, that of a guy who grew up in rural North Carolina, and the protestors provided additional information about their own experiences that made me a more well-rounded and, I think, kinder person. Although I can't speak for others, I suspect activists changed numerous other perspectives at Harvard Law as well.
Unfortunately, many students—especially campus conservatives—failed to benefit from the opportunity to engage with and learn from the protestors. Indeed, some took to physically leaving the law school and walking all the way around the occupied lounge just so they wouldn't have to speak to an activist. This avoidance wasn't entirely their fault—admittedly, activists (like too many left-wing protestors) could come off as intolerant, judgmental, even condescending—but the conservatives’ avoidance did reflect a fundamental reason for gridlock. We often fail to even engage.
That’s a mistake. As Jay and Grant point out, authenticity is everything. The Taoist philosopher Lao Tzu said that when we let go of who we are, we become who we might be; it’s also true that when we forget who we think we are, we become who we might be. By dropping pretense and authentically admitting we’re as utterly confused as anyone, we make mental space for learning, change, and, ultimately, personal growth. By opening ourselves up—i.e., becoming authentic—we help others feel comfortable enough to open up. Respectful dialogue begins and ends with humility.
For those so inclined, Jay and Grant include a series of useful exercises that can be used to (1) reflect on who you are and (2) reflect on who you wish to become in order to enjoy richer conversations with others and, indeed, with yourself. (The exercises aren’t necessary, but they do help solidify the book’s principles.)
In a world with more ways to communicate than ever, we often seem more close-minded than ever. It doesn’t have to be that way. Whether you’re a corporate manager trying to inspire employees or a professor wading through difficult issues within campus cultures that can feel politically stale and overly judgmental, Breaking Through Gridlock provides a forward-path.
“Conformity is the jailer of freedom and the enemy of growth.” Don’t remain imprisoned; branch out. Be authentic. Who knows? You might teach someone something—or learn something yourself.
Disclaimer: I was sent a review copy of Breaking Through Gridlock.