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The Business of Listening

4 Mins read

Most people don’t listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.”—Stephen Covey

Running your own business can be thrilling, fulfilling, and (hopefully) financially rewarding. It can also be extremely lonely—81% of small businesses in the U.S. are run by a single owner without any employees. Of companies with employees, the vast majority (78.4%) have fewer than 10. Even when you have a partner or a few employees, you are likely missing an essential component of healthy decision-making—having someone to talk to.

We’re not talking about social chit chat—rather, this is meaningful, active listening by someone who is other-focused. You can hire someone to listen to you—an effective listener who understands how to keep their mouth shut and their mind open. Part coach, part sounding board, a listening service’s critical difference from traditional business consulting is that it’s designed to be a one-off and not an ongoing investment in time and resources. Small business owners paralyzed by indecision or unable to see their way through a sticky problem pay someone for one hour to listen and help them solve the problem themselves.

While listening services have been around for a while, Veronica Fielding, owner of Digital Brand Expressions in Princeton, New Jersey, was one of the first to bring it directly to entrepreneurs. She launched Owlthena in 2018 as a one-hour, one-time session for business leaders and business owners who have become stuck. In 60 minutes, the “patient” will have literally talked her way clear.

The impact is often dramatic. “One person abruptly hung up her phone without saying goodbye; I thought I’d offended her,” Fielding recalls. “But true entrepreneur that she is, she got the revelation she needed and was off and running.”

While running Digital Brand Expressions, Fielding continued to devote much of her time to meeting with her employees, often to help them see their next career move. “About 25% of my professional workday is invested in helping make connections for people,” she says. “All of that networking helps me build my business and also helps others connect with people who can help them.”

Business consultancy is a robust business, with millions annually spent by entrepreneurs for advice and growth plans. It’s utilized mostly by large corporations because of the cost (although, as this article points out, many of the tools once “kept secret” by the industry are now freely available if you know where to look.) That’s not what professional listening is all about. In fact, it points to a superpower we all have within us—the ability to identify and solve our own business problems.

What Listening Services are NOT

  • Business advice. Any suggestions or solutions provided during a listening session will essentially come from the business owner. The listening model is a way to unblock the path for the answers to come through and materialize.
  • Tutorials or training. You do not receive handouts. In fact, don’t forget to take notes of yourself talking. Listening is for those times when you think you could get some clarity on a pressing issue if only you had the right person to talk to.
  • Social listening. While valuable for small businesses, social listening refers to an overall capture of engagement and conversations in your business’s social media sphere. This is a completely different listening that is outward focused, not inward.
  • Mental health therapy. Substantial mental distress is evidenced by low energy, withdrawal, sleeplessness, and inability to handle even minor life issues. Trained psychologists and psychiatrists are trained to treat mental health problems; listeners are not.
  • Suicide prevention. See above. You will know when your problem is much bigger than you, and you need intervention. Suicide prevention counselors are available on hotlines such as the National Suicide Prevention Hotline: 800-273-8255.

Does it Work?

For busy, cash-strapped business owners, this is the first question that comes to mind. The answer, Fielding says, is yes. “The one-hour, one-off sessions work. We don’t solve the problem, but we reframe it to enable the business leader to see a clear path to the next step and how to take it.” The biggest hurdle is understanding the subtle but important differences between listening and advising.

The two key differentials are:

  1. It’s designed as a one-off. If the service works the way it should, you only come once and pay for one session.
  2. Solutions and breakthroughs come from the business owner, not the listener. Talk:listen ratio skews in favor of the business owner, who, according to Fielding, usually speaks for about 95% of the session.

Some of the areas where listening is particularly effective include:

  1. Interpersonal—problems with employees, partners, vendors
  2. Opportunities—should I sell my business? Should I take this project?
  3. Second-guessing—the agony of questioning yourself is greatly eased as the listener enables you to literally talk out loud.

Ramping up Owlthena while managing her growing business became complicated, and Fielding needed to rethink her plans. “My company started to expand quickly, thanks to ‘Owlthena-ing’ myself,“ Fielding laughs. So now, instead of licensing the process, Fielding has decided to offer executive listening services to her client’s team executives when they want them.

At some point, Fielding is sure she will hear someone say this: “Hey, you know what we need? A listening service! One-time, one-hour video sessions where you talk to someone trained to really listen so you can hear yourself clearly and take action.”

And she will smile, knowing its time has come.

Erika Kotite is the co-owner with Sabrina Contreras of She Shed Living, a lifestyle company that designs and builds private structures for women. She is the author of She Sheds: A Room of Your Own and She Sheds Style: Make Your Space Your Own. IG: @sheshedliving | Facebook: She Shed Living

Business listening stock image by baranq/Shutterstock

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