To Listen Authentically, You Must Be Willing to Be Changed by What You Hear

A story appeared in the national news recently that for me had truly wide ranging implications. I suppose it depends on what you consider significant but when a prominent figure from one of our two main political parties changes a long and strongly held position on a subject that is controversial, I think it warrants some analysis not only on its own merits but for what the process offers in terms of transferable learning.

Senator Rob Portman of Ohio recently announced a reversal of a strongly held position on same sex marriage. In case you’ve been living in a cave, he was an opponent of same sex couples being able to call or having their civil unions recognized as “marriage.” His historical positions, in his own words, were largely faith-based…

“…my position on marriage for same-sex couples was rooted in my faith tradition that marriage is a sacred bond between a man and a woman.”

Rob Portman is 57 years old. That means for quite a long time he has held strongly to beliefs that were not subject to modification and which held firm in the presence of what has no doubt been considerable social pressure to alter his views. And then something changed…

Two years ago, my son Will, then a college freshman, told my wife, Jane, and me that he is gay. He said he’d known for some time, and that his sexual orientation wasn’t something he chose; it was simply a part of who he is.”

I know it is tough to create enough distance from some issues to be able to subject them to objective analysis much less extrapolate from the process and apply the lessons in other settings but bear with me please. Unless we are able to do so, it is hard to imagine much of anything new coming into our lives much less into our businesses and that is where I want to go with this dialogue.

For the largest portion of his life Rob Portman held to a belief that worked for him inside a chosen field of endeavor. For years his position had been reinforced by external sources allowing him to continue to hold to this particular set of beliefs without objective analysis; this despite growing evidence of a change in the marketplace of ideas. He had suffered no personal or professional consequences for failing to modify what for him had been a winning strategy.

In the days and weeks following his son’s revelation he admits to struggling to reconcile his faith and this new truth that could potentially threaten their relationship. This might seem like one of those classic situations where both the baby and the bathwater were up for grabs, an either/or if you will. Rob Portman found a way through to a both/and position and no doubt his life and that of his son will be better for it. Now he states that his support for gay marriage is grounded in his conservative roots not in spite of them.

We conservatives believe in personal liberty and minimal government interference in people’s lives. We also consider the family unit to be the fundamental building block of society. We should encourage people to make long-term commitments to each other and build families, so as to foster strong, stable communities and promote personal responsibility.”

Now see if you can make this jump with me. The central question I am winding my way towards might be summed up like this …what is so sacred in your beliefs about business, your business; the way things should be, etc., that you’ve not been willing to consider alternatives?

How would you feel if you found out that your failure to consider new ideas or information was the reason employees were not engaged in your workplace? Hopefully this thought is pretty compelling.

What if having your employees as committed, creative, energetic, passionate and accountable as you’ve always wanted them to be doesn’t have much at all to do with the pizza parties you throw each quarter or the atta boy/atta girl that comes with your fancy recognition program. What if it comes down to your willingness to consider their ideas thoroughly even when they seem to contradict what you have held to be true.

If you knew that it is some of your beliefs that stand in the way of the business environment you’ve always wanted to create, would you be willing to change your mind? Could you change your mind or do your beliefs mean more to you than what you say you’ve always wanted? Do you even know what matters to you most? Rob Portman found out first hand what mattered most in his life.




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