During a recent business dinner, a financial advisor started talking about a “problem employee” to me and others present.

It probably wasn’t a good forum for that discussion, and a couple advisors tried to steer the conversation in another direction.

But the advisor with the “problem employee’ persisted. Since he obviously needed to vent and be heard, we let him talk.

His primary complaint was that this employee consistently got to the office late and left early, which he considers to be major infractions of the office rules.

After he ran out of steam, I asked him a few questions.

First, I enquired about this employee’s job performance: “If this employee was performing to your expectations, meeting your needs and the clients loved him, would you be talking right now about his work hours?”

The owner said the employee has been doing an ok job, but not really living up to his expectations.

Next, I asked: “If this employee was doing a better job, would you be so concerned about the employee’s time clock?”

The owner advisor smiled and said, “No.”

Then I asked, “Do any other people in firm lack what you consider to be proper attention to the clock?”

He said some other employees tended to be pretty loose about when they came and went.

Finally, I asked: “What about you? What are your hours?”

The advisor paused a moment and said, “You know, maybe this really is more about the employee’s job performance, not about his time coming and going. And, if I want people to follow my rules, maybe I should lead by example.”

Alright, he didn’t really make that final point. He simply smiled at me, and we turned the conversation to sports and my pathetic NCAA basketball bracket (in which I had Michigan State winning the whole tournament and Virginia in the Final Four).

But this is a blog about listening — listening to what other people say and listening to what we ourselves say.

Listening is a major part of my work with owner advisors, especially helping them listen more to themselves. The right listening skills can make owner advisors better in many ways, like improving how they run their businesses.

Owner advisors can benefit from applying their listening skills in three ways:

  1. Listen to what your employees say.

Even though most owner advisors did “everything” when their firms were new, once they get more than a handful of employees and dozens of clients, it becomes very hard to have a good handle on “everything” that goes on in the business.

To keep up with the information they most need to pay attention to, owners need to listen to their employees.

I mean really listen. And the fastest way to shut down this pipeline of information is to make employees think what they say isn’t valuable.

If it’s general information, pay attention, ask questions, and make sure you understand what you’re being told.

Encourage employees to be honest and forthcoming, and thank them for their insights.

2. Help them listen to what they are saying.

When employees tell you about a problem they are having, resist the temptation to dismiss their input.

If they think they have a problem, then you have a problem.

Instead, ask questions and clarify exactly what the problem is.

Let them talk, and then gently ask questions about what they have told you.

As I illustrated earlier in the example of the dinner conversation, quite often advisors’ and employees’ answers to questions will contain a solution to their problems.

Help them to listen to what they’ve said and see what their own words really mean.

3. Listen to what you are saying.

I’m a big advocate of owner advisors relying on people they trust to listen to their problems and ideas.

But owners need to learn to listen to their own thoughts, too — I mean truly listen to what you are saying to yourself and do so out loud.

Next, see what you can learn and conclude from that self-talk.

We often have the solutions we need to our own problems — if only we would learn to listen to them.

When we cannot see the light, turn to someone you know who is patient enough to listen and ask questions when you need to be heard.