Jason Jay ’95

Year of Graduation: 
Jason Jay

"If you can let go of righteousness . . . we can tackle the big social issues of the day."

At the Harkness table, fluid and purposeful conversation is the norm. Everyone speaks, everyone listens and everyone learns. But in the world beyond campus, discourse can be more debate than dialogue. Jason Jay ’95 works to change all of that, teaching students and corporate leaders the art of respectful communication.

We are living in a culture of “taking sides,” says the MIT senior lecturer. “It’s tree huggers versus coal miners. Liberals versus conservatives.” Conversation, Jay believes, can be our nation’s uniting force. “There are a lot of contexts where we can harness this power of conversation — at the holiday dinner table, in a company boardroom or during a city policy meeting,” he says. “If you talk to your neighbor, your relative . . . if you can let go of righteousness . . . we can tackle the big social issues of the day.” Jay’s desire to promote positive change can be traced to his upbringing in Boulder, Colorado, a city known for its liberal leanings and awe-inspiring mountain vistas. At an early age, his father instilled in him a pragmatic, solution-minded focus; his mother (an activist who once laid across the access road to a nuclear weapons facility to block traffic) ingrained in him a bias for direct action on social issues.

But some of his most formative experiences were in class at Exeter, where he says he honed “a deep belief in the power of conversation to support learning and growth, to explore tough issues and challenges, and to generate new ideas.” Jay came to the Academy in early 1992, halfway through prep year. Though he enrolled for the academic rigor, that first semester overwhelmed him. He contemplated returning to his old school but stayed, largely for the Harkness table experience, relishing it as “this highly engaged, intellectual conversation with the right number of people to have diversity of perspective, but to really hear from everybody.”

In a polarized world, everyone is an advocate. ... All of these issues become very much part of the fabric of our everyday conversations.”

And it wasn’t only in the classroom that Jay learned the art of discussion. He got just as much out of the informal Harkness circles in the common room in Abbot Hall, where he’d hang out with friends from Egypt, Hong Kong or Brooklyn — even, he says with a laugh, with some conservative Republicans. “The quality of those conversations was really powerful,” he recalls. “Of course, it was ridiculous and we were insulting each other because we were boys in a dorm, but there was something about that spirit of conversation that really planted a seed.”

It’s a seed he continued to nurture. Jay earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology and a master’s in education at Harvard. He took an internship at Synectics, a creative consulting firm, where he practiced facilitating high-quality conversations to promote innovation. A postgraduate job at the consulting firm Dialogos gave him further exposure to the use of dialogue to support organizational improvement and leadership development. He went on to receive a doctorate in organization studies at the MIT Sloan School of Management, where he now teaches and directs the Sustainability Initiative.

“When my students try to make changes in organizations or build collaborations between companies and environmental groups, I want to know: Do they know how to engage with people? Do they know how to have a conversation? Do they know how to create together?” Jay says. “I zoomed in on conversation as a skill that we needed our students to cultivate. And I knew it would require pushing the envelope in our pedagogy — getting people to really reflect and dive into tough conversations.”

Jay shares his talking points in workshops, in TEDx presentations and in the book Breaking Through Gridlock: The Power of Conversation in a Polarized World. Jay and co-author Gabriel Grant call their technique “transformative contrasting,” suggesting that if you are having a tense conversation, try to “draw a contrast between what the other person expects of you and what you’re there to do; between the trade-off they fear they’ll have to make, and the new possibilities you’re there to open.”

I zoomed in on conversation as a skill that we needed our students to cultivate. And I knew it would require pushing the envelope in our pedagogy."

It’s a strategy that can work for everyone. “The idea that some bounded set of people have the job of having tough conversations about tough issues and the rest of us kind of let it slide or avoid it — that’s not the world we’re living in anymore,” Jay says. “In a polarized world, everyone is an advocate. Whether it’s for the diversity of our workplaces, ending the opioid epidemic, immigration — all of these issues become very much part of the fabric of our everyday conversations.”

Unfortunately, much of the modern fabric of conversation — tweets, snaps, posts — is too impersonal to be productive, Jay says. “It’s a completely different context to have a conversation with another human being face-to-face versus over the phone or by email. … YouTube comments are probably the basest form of human conversation,” Jay says. Anonymity doesn’t do civil discourse any favors, he adds. “People behave and express themselves in all kinds of ways that are denigrating and disrespectful that they would never do in a conversation over the phone, let alone in person when they’re looking someone in the eye.”

Social media algorithms further exacerbate this “taking sides” culture by showing us things we already like and reinforcing a “filter bubble” phenomenon, Jay says. Facebook and other companies, now aware of how they have contributed to polarization, are making new efforts to “match-make” those who are ideologically different, which is a start, Jay says.

He’s heartened by podcasts such as Dylan Marron’s “Conversations with People Who Hate Me,” which moves polarizing online communication to genuine offline respect. In the podcast, Marron connects the recipients of hate comments with the people who posted them — establishing a real conversation between two human beings. It’s profound, Jay says. He’s also a fan of low-key gatherings of individuals that break down so-called “empathy walls” — those barriers that result from the “hiving off of ideological communities,” or the sorting of neighborhoods and congressional districts into ideologically homogenous zones.

“If our neighborhoods and our internet bubbles are not allowing us to have conversation, it means that we have to be more deliberate and find people who are in some way able to create civic dialogue,” he says. To that end, Jay is exploring the idea of “shared commitment.” “Once you’ve crossed the bridge and built some context for creating new ideas together across the lines, it’s time to get into action. That requires sustained shared commitment,” he says. “We’re in a moment now for that to happen.”

Editor's note: This article first appeared in the winter 2019 issue of The Exeter Bulletin.