How To Ask The Question “Can I Pick Your Brain?”

By Chris Kolmar - Jan. 20, 2021
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You might come across someone in your professional life who seems to embody various characteristics you admire. They could be a leader and role model – a highly effective, self-sufficient “go-getter,” or simply a stable member in a career that intrigues you.

You want to ask them how their knowledge and experience could help your own professional development. You may think it would be appropriate to ask, “can I pick your brain?”. It seems harmless enough.

You have probably heard the phrase countless times to set up casual conversations. However, if this question is not properly handled, you may find yourself shut down and shut out of positive learning and networking opportunities.

What “Can I Pick Your Brain?” Means

Before you even approach the person in question, you should first ask yourself why you want to “pick” their brain in the first place.

The question “can I pick your brain?” is so open-ended and vague that it can annoy whomever you direct the question to because if they are worthy of the question, then they are likely busy individuals with valuable time to spend.

In fact, the question might bother somebody because they make a living off the kind of consultation you are looking for. They will not want to offer their services lightly, especially if your question is as ambiguous as “can I pick your brain?”

Without further specification, they don’t know what you mean, what they can do to help, and how much time the conversation will take.

The question “can I pick your brain?” might even be good for some people, but their expectations may be different than yours, and you risk misleading the other person, which in turn can offend them.

This does not mean you shouldn’t approach someone or expect they will not want to help. You can set up a productive conversation. You just need to frame the question better.

So figure out what your intentions are. Most likely, what you are looking for is advice. You want to approach this person because they have something to offer you from their knowledge and experience.

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This is good because most people, particularly leaders, prefer to be asked for advice. Therefore, you’ll need figure out what type of advice you want.

“Can I pick your brain?” could mean you need a discrete recommendation for a specific decision. Or you might be looking for counsel and guidance on how to approach a process that requires a plan of attack and framework. Or you might be looking for a coach to help enhance your skill set. Or you might need a mentor for a nurturing professional relationship.

In any case, the first step to a successful conversation begins with your knowledge of what you want or need. From there, you can ask for advice. Just make sure to ask it the right way.

What Is the Best Way to Ask, “Can I Pick Your Brain?”

It’s simple; don’t ask the question, “can I pick your brain?”. As discussed, it is too vague, and the person you ask can get annoyed by your inability to be more articulate. Plus, the question itself is cliche, and you should want to stand out with originality and sincerity.

Instead, ask a question that pertains to your needs and acknowledges the needs of the person you wish to speak with. Consider the following steps to go about this:

  • Email. The first step is to choose the format in which you ask the question. Email is the best choice. It is professional and gives the other person time and space to consider their answer.

    Email also allows you to approach unsolicited without appearing too invasive if you phrase the question correctly.

  • Establish a connection. There should be some relevance to choosing this person, so before you even get to your question, show that you feel the two of you already have something in common.

    It can be really helpful if you two share the same profession or the same educational background. You can also use your admiration for their work to highlight common values.

  • Be polite. You will want to use professional language. Do not be demanding; instead request the opportunity to speak with each other.

  • Be mindful of their time. You want to acknowledge that the other person may be very busy. Offer different ways to communicate and leave it up to them to choose.

    Also, offer them the chance to suggest other people or resources if they cannot speak with you. This is an excellent tactic because most people want to help even if they cannot do exactly what you ask of them.

    It could make them feel good to offer alternative help and perhaps build a future relationship between the two of you.

  • Be brief and specific. Without ignoring a polite tone, get to the point of your question. Be effective by being efficient with your word choice.

    You want to state your intention, your goals, and your desired outcome. From this, you offer the other person a clearer picture of the situation, and they can more aptly figure out if and how they can help.

An Example Question

For this example, assume you work at a biotech firm. You have just been promoted to manager of your marketing team. This is your first leadership position, and you are quite nervous.

However, you wish to rise to the challenge and are excited about future opportunities. For your first task, you need to assign roles to your staff for an upcoming PR campaign.

The campaign is intricate, and several of your staff have conflicting ideas on the best way to approach the project. You want to hear them out; however, you also want to make sure that the campaign’s direction is the best one possible – one that you can stand by and manage effectively.

Due to this, you decide to approach the Vice President of Marketing, who resides in the corporate office far away from your location.

You send him the following email:

Dear ______,

I am the manager of the marketing team for the Seattle office. We have an upcoming PR campaign that will highlight our services to local hospitals. My team is very excited. However, they each have different ideas, and I need to pick the best one.

Could you and I schedule a video chat where I can go over our different options? I would love your feedback to help me decide the best route to take. However, if you are busy, could I go over the options with you via email. Alternatively, would you know anyone else who might be able to help or resources that might point me in the right direction?

Thank you for your time

This email gets the point across in a direct, polite manner. You establish your specific need, and you provide multiple options in which the vice president can help. Imagine had you sent an email more along the lines, “Could I pick your brain to talk about our Seattle PR campaign?”

Your vice president might be confused or annoyed with the request, and you wouldn’t get the desired results.

The Next Steps

Once you ask your question, you now need to be prepared for what comes next. Here are some tips to get you ready:

  • Be realistic. Both before and after you send your request, make sure you are realistic with your expectations. Be ready for a rejection or an answer that is not helpful.

    However, do not despair either. As long as you were courteous and direct in your request, you have done the best you can, and the attempt was worth it.

  • Be prepared. If they say yes to you, be ready to schedule a meeting and be prepared for that meeting. Do your homework and research your topic or issue as thoroughly as possible.

    It will also help to learn more about the person you are talking to ahead of time. Have questions ready to keep the conversation focused, and be prepared if the conversation takes unexpected directions.

  • Be humble. Nothing would be a bigger waste of time if you were to show up and act like you know all the answers to the problem. Don’t only look for validation of your ideas.

    Remember, you are there to listen to the other person offer their knowledge and experience to help you, so give them the respect they deserve.

  • Offer value in return. This is more than an offer to buy them a meal or a drink, though you can still do that as a sign of respect. However, also offer them something that makes it worth their time.

    During the conversation, look for ways that the other person might have something to benefit from the discussion, such as business or growth opportunities.

  • Show gratitude. So yes, offer to pay for the meal/drinks. More importantly, send a genuine thank you note and follow up and show you have taken action based on your conversation. For example, give them an update and results that came from their advice.

  • Keep the conversation going. Use your best judgment and don’t be intrusive, but if relevant topics from your conversation come up in the future, reach out, let an organic conversation and your relationship grow, but have the expectation that it may “die out.”

Finally, consider a few things to avoid when you pursue the advice of someone else.

  • Don’t ask too many people. You will be saturated with advice, and you will not take it all. People can get offended if you don’t listen to them, they may feel their time was wasted.

    If you wish to get the advice of multiple people, be upfront so that expectations are set at the beginning.

  • Don’t be bitter. If someone rejects you or gives you a piece of advice you disagree with, do not take it out on the other person. They may have many reasons to behave the way they do.

    You must focus on what’s best for you, and it does not help you take out your frustration on an unassuming professional.

  • Don’t be afraid. Don’t be afraid to ask for advice. It is not a weakness, and in fact, it can be seen as a sign of strength to acknowledge your needs.

Final Thoughts

If you take all this into account, then you can be ready to approach any professional whose thoughts and opinions you admire. As long as you maintain your sense of professionalism in a humble manner, you shouldn’t have to worry about the reaction you get.

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Chris Kolmar

Author

Chris Kolmar

Chris Kolmar is a co-founder of Zippia and the editor-in-chief of the Zippia career advice blog. He has hired over 50 people in his career, been hired five times, and wants to help you land your next job. His research has been featured on the New York Times, Thrillist, VOX, The Atlantic, and a host of local news. More recently, he's been quoted on USA Today, BusinessInsider, and CNBC.

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