Becoming More Active Listeners
Updated: Mar 18
Christina Couch | February 27, 2023
This journal piece is a reflection of a training session that Chris Newman led for Skywoman employees to learn the necessary skills for leading active listening discussions with project owners. Skywoman is moving away from this “get to the point” business culture that we live in. As storytellers, it is our job to create a comfortable space for sharing, with little to no pressure around time constraints, and to truly, and actively, listen to our clients so we can best serve their needs. This internal culture takes time to build but we are excited to share our progress with you as we integrate this intention into all of our work.
When clients need support with new project development or challenges within an existing business, they often try to immediately jump into solving the problem at hand. At the same time, consultants, mentors and business advisors are equally eager to learn about the bottleneck and formulate a solution as efficiently as possible. The problem with this is we find ourselves analyzing challenges within the vacuum of the operation without considering external factors. We rarely take time to understand the influence that a business decision, big or small, will have on the livelihood of the business owners and the employees who are executing the operational pivot, expansion, retraction, or modification.
This is where Skywoman is committed to a different approach… one focused on storytelling. Before we even scratch the surface of a client’s business challenges, we need to understand how any decision we work through may affect, or be affected by, all of the components that make up their life.
We find ourselves asking questions like: What does a day in your life look like? A week? A weekend? How do you spend your birthday? Do you live an active lifestyle? What are your hobbies? How often do you cook? Do you have a partner? How much income do they contribute to your lifestyle and business? Do you have children? Are you planning to? If so, when? Who is educating your kids? How often, and why? Do you have a second job? Are you caring for other family members? The list goes on…
And you might be asking yourself, how in the world do these questions have anything to do with my food sovereignty project? There is so much value in these tangents that we are guiding you to speak on, but at the surface may seem “off-topic” to a typical business meeting. We’ve seen this time and time again - clients begin to make a verbal side note or dip off into an anecdotal account but stop themselves because they fear we are “limited on time”. But honestly, these stories are where the magic happens. It’s where we can see into the little portal of your life to truly understand you. And how better to meet your needs than to get to the root of what motivates you, pisses you off, and brings you joy?
After understanding what your life looks like currently, we can go one step further to help you envision the life you want to live. Then with the full picture in place, Skywoman can assess whether or not this business decision will move you closer or further away from your personal goals. After all, if you’re unhappy on a personal level it is really difficult to have a people and community-oriented entrepreneurial venture.
Options and Marginal Analysis
Our clients typically know and can express where it is that they want to go, but have they chosen the best path to get there? Do they have the best information they need to make that choice? We are trying to avoid a place where business development decisions are made with blinders on. The quality of your decisions depends on the quality of the data you are depending on to make that choice.
Sometimes this data is influenced by other business owners who have already worked through similar challenges. As analysts, when we are working with a client, it is very beneficial to have other projects and business cases of similar nature to lean on for intelligence and tools.
For example, Skywoman is wrapping up a project with The Dogs Run Farm (DRF) where we analyzed their poultry operation to decide either (a) improving their existing operation or (b) getting out of poultry production all together. Working with DRF has shown us how difficult it is to deal with poultry beyond the farm gate in Canada, and so we are using this insight to inform Cheyenne of Sundance Harvest what roadblocks she can expect in her new pursuit of layer production in Ontario.
We can also use the same tools and templates, such as the P&L spreadsheet from Chris Newman’s poultry operation, to plug in DRF and Sundance Harvest’s numbers without reinventing the wheel. The best part - this P&L sheet is now available as a free financial tool, known as OOLA, for anyone looking to start, overhaul, fine-tune, or evaluate alternatives to a regenerative pastured-egg operation.
Case Study: Sundance Harvest
Let’s walk through an example of how we applied the exercises above with Cheyenne Sundance, owner and founder of Sundance Harvest, an urban vegetable farm in Southwestern Ontario, CN. Cheyenne’s vegetable business has done very well since its inception, through both farmers market and CSA sales, and today is a model incubation farm and distribution hub.
After a few very successful seasons, Cheyenne has available labor and resources to reinvest in the business and is considering entering into layer production for eggs and stewing hens. She approached Chris Newman seeking mentorship on establishing this poultry operation so we hosted one of these active listening exercises. Before crunching the numbers on whether or not layers make sense on a financial and technical level, we took a step back to understand if it first makes sense for Cheyenne on a personal level. In this strategy discussion we touched on what Cheyenne would like her life to look like in the coming years, and then helped her decide if investing in poultry would allow her to reach both her personal and business goals.
One should always proceed with caution when expanding a business based on a very successful few years, especially if you are framing your success around the COVID-19 pandemic. We are talking about a rare time when the supply chain completely failed consumers and farmers, such as Cheyenne, were in a really good position to move their product. This is the first point where we needed to talk through whether or not expanding Sundance Harvest’s operations, based on a few years of record high demand in local farm products, is a sound decision.
Our immediate concern is that the good times can last, but this is not always the case. Expanding or modifying a business model creates vulnerability so we need to be certain that the “successful” experience she is modeling her expansion off of has a strong and reliable foundation to support the growth.
Additionally, business owners generally feel they can replicate their success anywhere, and that just because one line of business is exceeding expectations in performance any other line of business will follow suit. For Sundance Harvest, this means exposing the truth that just because the profitability on vegetables is great, doesn’t necessarily mean the same will hold true for producing eggs and stewing hens, and so it's worth crunching the numbers.
After a deep dive with Cheyenne, we found that expanding into poultry aligns with her personal values and long-term business goals. Once confirmed, we scheduled a follow-up meeting to forecast the numbers of her future layer operation, which looked great! Ultimately, this is a wonderful business opportunity for Cheyenne and she can now step into the process with the confidence of strong numbers and alignment with her lifestyle.
There is a certain mental shift Skywoman is encouraging people to make. We are pushing back against a culture that insists on speed, action, and visibility. The Skywoman “Way”, and the way of sovereign and people-centered food supply chains insists on deliberation, good counsel, and deep self-confidence that buttresses the toxic demand for visible action.
In our process of discovering and evaluating options, we focus on:
We are referencing how your morale, confidence, family, social health and other “intangibles” are affecting not only your decision making, but perhaps even the feeling that a decision has to be made.
Ask yourself – “What happens if I don’t expand and just stay exactly where I am?” More than likely, you can redirect your intended resources for expansion into slowly improving your existing operation for a better, tighter business with fewer mistakes.
Here’s a helpful exercise – pretend you’re on the other side, convincing yourself why you shouldn’t move forward with a business decision. Practice understanding and talking through the downsides of this transition so you can fully understand the breadth of how it will affect your business and your personal life. Move slowly, and with intention.
There is so much importance in having strong information to reference before you act, even if you’re going to act on instinct. Not every decision needs to be highly calculated, you have the choice to follow the path of your heart instead of the math. However, it’s only a valid choice if you have the information in front of you and therefore the fair ability to choose, or not to choose.
Skywoman is instilling the notion that it’s OK, and often wisest, to move slowly. Inaction can be a conscious and valid choice.
Operating at 15 mph when the world is pushing you to operate at 100 is a completely acceptable place to be. It’s actually encouraged. Perpetual growth for the sake of growing with no “why” is how we landed ourselves in this corporate farming model to begin with. And where does it lead us? Closed off, not listening to ourselves, our people, nor our community – the natural environment included. The less stillness we have, the less we know about ourselves and what we need to do next.
As Chris Newmans’s father says, “energy that you feel you can only grab now is cheap and cannot endure.” Meaning, if a business opportunity is dependent on being pulled in right now, and it must be grabbed instantaneously before it goes away, that energy would have never stuck around anyway. The type of energy you want to carry with you tends to not go away. It tends to want to stick with you, and not with the moment…
For example, if you raise layers and everyone around you is moving super quickly to take advantage of customers through elevated egg prices, you can seize the opportunity to handle it differently. In this case, moving slowly and intentionally by keeping your prices low in already difficult times will increase your customer loyalty for the long-term.
Our Own Red Road
The cultural imperative to focus on what can be done instead of what should be done, to get results right now … to be doing something visible and shareable … is extremely powerful. And dangerous. Today, it’s typically to prove something to a stranger on social media. Understandably, because it’s our human nature to want the approval of our village, but the problem is our “community” is becoming so large and unmanageable that it is less and less interconnected by reciprocity and trade.
This cultural imperative is so powerful that some clients are not willing to engage in the process of understanding themselves, businesses and projects aside. Getting them to open up in an intentional matter takes time, making this style of working a much slower process than many would like. For us, it’s key to not only execute decisions well, but to make good decisions in the first place.
We are working to avoid “the golden burnout” – when your business is extremely successful, but you’re not happy, because you’re focusing on what other people want you to do instead of what only you can do, that thing you’re really good at.
Skywoman analysts are pushing food sovereignty organizations to create a different foundation than the one that has led us to our current predicament. But with that, we must be willing to respectfully walk away from projects that don’t align with our intentions because… Skywoman is not in the business of enabling people/organizations to execute poor decisions well.
Enjoying these pieces? Support us on Patreon!
To support this work please consider subscribing to the Skywoman Patreon. This budget is the sole funding source for all things Skywoman and makes projects like this possible. You’ll receive exclusive access to Chris Newman's podcast episodes, excerpts from his upcoming book, and a myriad of food sovereignty publications that live behind the Patreon wall.
We appreciate you!