I've asked advice from a lot of people-- and greatly benefitted from it. My belief is that I can best learn from those who have gone before me. So, I often seek such people out because I am convinced that one of the greatest ways to learn is through seeking the counsel of others.
Most of us quickly learn we need to regularly engage with certain key people (e.g. coaches, mentors, professional peers) from whom we can seek advice, encouragement, and feedback on issues we are facing in life and ministry. The difficulty, however, is that we are often ill-prepared when seeking advice from whom we desire to learn but do not know particularly well. Below are a few of the things I have learned about being a good steward of time and resources when seeking out advice.
Information or Relationship
Is an advice conversation primarily for relationship-building conversation, or for information-transference? There are certainly times when you should lay the groundwork for a deeper relationship. But many times when asking for advice, especially with someone you are meeting for the first time, you simply need to be prepared to ask questions and glean information. Don't feel forced to build extended, intimate relationships with every person from whom you seek advice, and don't ask the same advice from every relationship.
I sometimes will have an advice conversation that is scheduled for 30 minutes, actually lasts 45 minutes, and accomplishes very little. Once, I was asked for some advice via email about very specific things. The person requested a meeting, and my schedule allowed it at that time, so I was glad to do so. However, the first 15 minutes was spent with him sharing his story-- which I loved to hear, but meant that we never got to the advice question. Many times, I think it is helpful and important to understand the person's story, but regrettably the situation that he shared really had nothing to do with the advice question that he came to address. I was disappointed we never got to his issue even though I was glad to learn about his family.
1. Ask, "What do I expect to do differently after this conversation?"
First, you should ask yourself, "What do I want out of this advice conversation?" and "Why should this meeting matter?" As the person seeking advice, you want to be very clear and gather your thoughts beforehand so that you know exactly what want to gain from this conversation. Showing up with written questions is key to accomplishing this. Then, while asking them, be an efficient note-taker. Don't take out your cell phone and start typing things at a slow pace. Write down the answers underneath the questions that you have written out beforehand.
2., Ask, "How do I prepare?"
Second, ask the person from whom you are going to seek advice if there are other things you should read in preparation for your advice conversation. For example, I try to help someone maximize our time together by asking them to prepare so I can help them in the best way possible.
If someone wants to talk to me about how to plant a church, I ask them if they have read Planting Missional Churches. If they want to talk about church revitalization, I ask them if they have read Comeback Churches or Transformational Church. As a matter of fact, my standard practice is that I don't have advice conversations with people about specific topics until they have read up a bit so their first question isn't, "How can I fix my church?" Our conversations are better when we are better prepared.
However, I am happy, on the other hand, to answer questions to bring clarity and talk about application of that which I have already communicated. If you are going to engage in an advice conversation with someone you do not know, seeing what they have written on it beforehand so that you can actually help to apply it is a better course of action, and a better use of time for both parties.
3. Ask, "What background is necessary?"
Third, prepare the information that someone needs to understand the background of the situation. Then, cut that in half. There may be many details about yourself or your circumstances you can share, but keep your information to what is necessary for the specific advice you are seeking-- that way you can maximize the time. In other words, what does the person giving you advice need to know to effectively give you advice? That way you maximize the time and ultimately get better information and advice along the way. You are a better steward and learner.
4. Ask, "Am I ready to learn?"
Listen. Don't go into the conversation with a defensive posture. You may ultimately decide not to take all of the advice you are given, but try to avoid any knee jerk reactions and to simply receive.
5. Ask, "What am I going to do now?"
Finally, take action--small or large. But, do something in light of the conversation. It is too easy to get into the habit of gleaning advice for what we will hopefully do someday but never make the small changes that are possible today.
The opportunity to receive counsel from others is a valuable one. I would not be where I am today if it were not for people who invested small amounts of their time to help a young church planter. And even today I am grateful for people who help me to think through issues that I am facing in ministry and in life.
It is a privilege to learn at the feet of others, and one that should not be taken for granted, but should be used to its fullest potential.