​By Mark A. Gabriel

WAPA’s refreshed core values are all equally important. I chose to write about the one I think is imperative for success as leaders and stewards of the public good. It speaks to me because I have had to work to improve it.

As a young executive, I received feedback that suggested I had a tendency to listen for the information and answers I wanted, rather than to listening to what I was actually being told. Some people felt I was dismissing them.

I worked on the skill of listening to understand throughout my early career. 

Listening to understand does not come naturally to the majority of people. Most of us are not natural empaths. It is a learned behavior. Often when we engage with someone, we come to the conversation with assumptions and expectations instead of an open mind. We listen for what we expect to hear or what we already assume to be true.

This is not only an error, but a missed opportunity. When we only hear what we want to hear, we miss vital information. We miss what may be important to others. We miss subtleties and clues. We miss indications of problems. We miss what others are trying desperately to tell us.

This shows up in lots of places: at work, at home, one on one, in groups, in meetings. The consequence of not listening to understand is that people do not believe that you hear them. We become blind to important thoughts, ideas and concepts. We jump to decisions and conclusions without considering all available and relevant information.

People also have a tendency to dismiss ideas they do not already hold or believe. The fact that you do not share the same concern as someone does not mean the concern itself is invalid. We cannot solve the problems we do not hear or understand. 

This ties into the ability of leaders to give and receive feedback. You have likely heard of the compliment sandwich. It refers to people sandwiching difficult feedback or criticism between two positive statements. Knowing what we know—that those listening will often hear what they want to hear and disregard the rest—you can see the error in the compliment sandwich. 

This is where speaking with purpose comes in. 

Speaking with purpose, not clouding or diluting your message with distractions, will increase peoples’ ability to hear and understand you. 

The Source, a two-year-old section of our website where we share operational and financial data, is an example of the difference speaking with purpose can make. When I first arrived at WAPA, we spent so much time working with customers to deliver the set of data they thought they wanted. We handed over the information requested, but did not impart any knowledge or provide enough context. 

Although we listened, we did not ask the right questions. We have since evolved our response to that request. We are doing an overhaul of what is currently posted and how it is presented. We expect to publish a lot more data in the next couple of months.

The “speak with purpose” part of the core value asks you to say what you mean and mean what you say. When we choose to speak, it should be to share information or make a point. We must get comfortable with silence. 

When I was a journalist, I learned quickly about people’s inclination to talk just to fill space. Often, people say too much. We must be judicious with our words. 

We have only one mouth, but two ears. 

Listen to understand, speak with purpose.​

Last modified on September 12th, 2023