Understanding must be the new winning

by Timothy Mottet

Timothy Mottet headshotThe people have voted.

The election is over, but our country remains divided.

We remain divided because we view politics as sport – games with distinct winners and losers. Are you on the team who won, or the team who lost? Perhaps you’re already thinking about the next round… rebuilding, rebranding, reimagining the possibilities for a new competition that will certainly be fiercer and more intense than the last. Nevertheless, our path forward must be less about winning or losing. Instead, we must focus on understanding.

I grew up on a farm in Iowa, where my parents engaged in the Iowa Caucuses. I remember my parents gathering in neighbors’ shag-carpeted living rooms, smoking cigarettes, drinking lots of black coffee, and talking more about policies and less about politicians. Neighbors gave counsel to each other, listened, argued, laughed, and encouraged understanding when there was disagreement. Things weren’t less divisive, of course, but the way we shared information, data, and facts certainly was.

Years after leaving that Iowa farm, my desire to understand those with whom I disagree has increased. When half of our country votes for a candidate that I consider not right for our country, I have to ask myself – what am I missing? I am hungry to understand. What am I not seeing? What editorial didn’t I read? What broadcast did I miss? What debate did I not follow?

I have devoted my life to understanding. I’m a communication professor who is committed to helping people reach consensus in moments of crisis or despair. I’ve dedicated my life to teaching that we must first listen to people if we want to truly understand them, including why they hold particular positions or interests.

In communication, we learn that a “position” is really just an outcome that a person desires. For example, I support Candidate B, because she supports X, Y, and Z, which would result in an outcome I desire. We generally make our positions, on any topic, known to others.

An “interest,” in contrast, is an internal motivator that compels one to articulate a position. Interests represent desires, needs, concerns, or sometimes fears; interests often remain invisible to others. But it’s the invisible interests that, in many ways, are much more important than a person’s position.

When you listen to your families, your friends, or your colleagues, try getting to their interests. What are they not telling you? For example, if a friend says that he is voting for Candidate A, because that candidate is good for business and the economy, he has made his position clear. What’s less clear is his interest. You have to find a way to reach this level of sharing. If you’re patient and listen well, you’ll learn that your friend is fearful about the future … that he is approaching retirement and has not saved enough money to take care of himself or his family. In this moment, you begin to really understand his motivation – his interest.

Although you may disagree with someone’s position, if you can begin to understand his or her interests, that is where you will find common ground. It is at this level, that we begin to really understand other people and make sense of differing positions. And sense making is what will heal the divide and ensure that we all win the next round.

Dr. Timothy Mottet is president of Colorado State University Pueblo, a regional, comprehensive, federally designated Hispanic-Serving Institution serving approximately 4,000 students in Southern Colorado. His research examines the intersections of communication, personality, and cognition and their application to instructional, organization, and interpersonal contexts.

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