Find a Job You Really Want In
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.
“Can I pick your brain?” usually means you want some kind of advice, however, it is a vague and invasive question.
Use a more appropriate question like “I could use your perspective” to appear more mindful.
Be specific and polite in your question.
Try to have a previous connection with the person before you start picking their brain.
What “Can I Pick Your Brain?” Means
Before you ask someone if you can pick their brain, you must know what you are trying to accomplish.
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.
This is good because most people, particularly leaders, appreciate giving advice.
“Can I pick your brain?” could also mean you want:
A recommendation for a specific decision.
Guidance on how to approach a process.
A coach to help enhance your skill set.
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.
Do Not Ask “Can I Pick Your Brain?”
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. From there, you can ask for advice. Just make sure to ask it the right way.
How To Ask “Can I Pick Your Brain?”
Again, 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, be polite, unobtrusive, concise, and specific. Consider the following steps to go about this:
Use an alternative phrase. There are many alternatives to asking “can I pick your brain?” You can say:
“I want to learn from your experience.”
“I would love your feedback.”
“Your perspective would be very helpful for me.”
“I could use your help in understanding something.”
“You have the kind of skills I wish to develop.”
“Would you be able to give me some advice?”
“I would be grateful to another pair of eyes on this.”
Any one of these phrases is less invasive and sets you up for a more professional conversation.
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.
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.
An Example “Can I Pick Your Brain” Question
Consider the following example as a way to ask, “can I pick your brain?”
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.
What To Do After You Ask “Can I Pick Your Brain?”
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.
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.