Matters Column

Listen and learn: respecting other people’s viewpoints

June 6, 2014
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With all the talk about political correctness and prejudice, I think there is a major issue that is not being discussed: When you have a pre-conceived idea of what a person is going to be like before you meet them, you may miss an opportunity to learn something from them. 

My wife, Chris, and my daughter, Deborah Nol, and I had an opportunity to meet with Dr. Patrick Brundin, M.D., Ph.D., who heads the neurodegenerative disease group at the Van Andel Institute. The meeting was arranged by my daughter and her husband after having met Dr. Brundin at a Parkinson’s disease fundraiser. I have Parkinson's disease, so my daughter wanted me to meet him.

What do you expect from an M.D./Ph.D. who is a world-recognized authority in neurodegenerative disease? Maybe someone like Sheldon Cooper from the TV sitcom “The Big Bang Theory.” I was impressed with his knowledge and passion about his research, but what surprised me was his people skills. The time we spent with him was informative, but it was also enjoyable.

So what else did I learn? Highly educated and technically advanced people can be personally engaging. He was well rounded in his knowledge of people, and we discussed his native Sweden and its culture including one of my favorite subjects: the Vikings. I learned that Sweden is a “nanny state.” Many Swedes do not do personal tax returns; the tax form comes already filled out, and only needs to be signed and returned. The government already has all the information. There is more to be learned from Dr. Brundin than his research.

An unexpected source of a concept I have found helpful in my struggle to understand people came from Pete Secchia. I asked him one night at a dinner what motivated people. He said people pursue in their adult life what they perceive they lacked as a child. So I asked him to tell me what I lacked as a child. He said, “You thought people felt you were stupid.” He hit the nail on the head. I was horribly nearsighted as a child and it was not discovered until about fourth grade. I have three older brothers and the taunting was pretty intense.

The result is that I have the obnoxious-at-times need to prove to those around me that I am smarter than they are. That includes bosses — ergo, my choice to become self-employed. I am fortunate to have received Pete's observation because it has helped me understand myself and others. If you view him as an extremely successful businessman, you would be right. If you put aside the expected gruffness and listen to him, you may learn some valuable insights.

One of the greatest evenings of enlightenment I have had came from an appointment I had tried to cancel. In the late ’70s, I had an evening appointment with Charles Johnson from Benton Harbor, a potential new client and a black business owner. I came down with a horrible cold but was unable to contact him to let him know I was sick. Thank God, I didn't reach him. I spent close to three hours with one of the most interesting and enjoyable men I have ever met. We discussed his youth in the south, education, Detroit — all from a perspective that was new to me. It was one of the first times I had the opportunity to learn firsthand what life was like for someone from his background. I learned more in that three hours than in my whole previous life about why some people see the world in a different way than I do.

Then there is Leon. Leon is a Rottweiler that belongs to Jeff Van Strien from the Principal Group. Jeff has stopped by in the past few years to visit my wife and I in Cheboygan when traveling north on business. He travels with Leon, an exceptionally well behaved and pleasant dog. If Jeff were ever to ask you if he could stop by with Leon and you declined because of your uninformed opinion of Rottweilers, you would miss a great opportunity for canine companionship. I think if Leon could talk, he might mention my German ancestry and the fact that I have my own share of bad history to live down.

We may have preconceived ideas of what a man, woman, African-American, Hispanic, etc., will be like before we meet them. We may be inclined to do the same with accountants, lawyers, dentists, doctors, teachers, union members, Democrats and Republicans. But stereotypes are based on averages. I have met women who are fabulous athletes and extremely competitive. I have met men who would rather watch cartoons than compete.

If you prejudge, you may miss an opportunity to learn something valuable.

A small business owner can never know too much. Knowledge of people, products, financial concepts, marketing, legal issues, etc., all have value in building a business. If you ask the same people the same question over and over again, you will almost always get the same answer. If you ask questions of people in the same group, you will get similar answers. But if you listen to people of different ethnic groups, genders, social classes, religions, political parties, professions, affluence, etc. without pre-judgment, you may really learn something.  

In the world today, everyone must deal with a diverse population. Even in the conservative community of Grand Rapids, there is increasing diversity and, as it develops, if you stick your head in the sand, it will be to your own peril.

Everybody has a story to tell from a brilliant scientific researcher or a minority member struggling to make it in the north after growing up in the south. Even Leon the Rottweiler has a story. He just can't tell it. I grew up in Flint, which gave me an attitude about unions. Listening to other people has modified that opinion. I have 16 years of Catholic education. It took me a long time to realize that everybody thinks their truth is the only truth.

Life is much more interesting when you listen to and respect other people’s truths. In small business, it is critical.

Paul Hense is the retired president of local accounting firm Hense & Associates. He also is past chairman of the Small Business Association of Michigan.

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