3 Tips For “Picking Someone’s Brain” (Asking and Answering)

Ryan Morris
by Ryan Morris
Get The Job - 5 months ago
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Of all the artful euphemisms that folks in the business world use to dupe or mislead others about their intentions, the phrase “pick your brain” is one of the worst.

On a given day, people with any degree of influence or importance in an industry are going to get asked for advice.

While sometimes this request is less obtrusive than at other times, getting asked the question always represents a big time commitment for what amounts to giving out free advice.

“Why yes, I’d actually love for you to spend a dollar and a half on my coffee while I give you the kind of information that companies pay me hundreds of dollars for.”

But that being said, the general idea — of going to someone with proven experience and asking them for help — isn’t a bad one.

In fact, it might be something you ought to try yourself if you’re just coming up in a new field.

However, it’s important to know that there is a right way and a wrong way to go about making the ask.

And for those who are already getting asked this question far too often for their liking, we’ve also put together some advice on how to handle excessive brain-picking requests.

Contents

1. What Does it Mean When Someone Asks to “Pick Your Brain?”

First, let’s take a little dip into what “picking someone’s brain” actually consists of.

Here’s the way the process usually goes:

  • Person A compliments Person B (in person, over email, or however) regarding their success in whatever industry, and follows up by asking if they can “pick their brain” sometime soon.
  • Usually this question is phrased as an invitation to lunch or coffee (“I’ll pay,” Person A tends to offer), but it can also be phrased as an invitation to talk on the phone.
  • Person A then proceeds to take a half hour or more of Person B’s time by asking tons of questions and getting lots of industry advice either for the cost of lunch or a latte or even for free.

“Thanks for the stale oatmeal cookie and for wasting an hour and a half of my life.”

For the person whose brain is being picked, this presents quite a few issues.

  • It can be a huge timesink, and for someone who’s doing well at work (which they certainly are if they’re being asked this question), this can be annoying and expensive.
  • Many of these industry professionals act as consultants, meaning that the advice that they’re giving someone else for free during a brain-picking session would ordinarily cost dozens or even hundreds of dollars.
  • Despite all this, it can be tough to say no to these requests due to how pushy some can be and how rude an outright rejection can often seem.

But despite all the annoyance that asking the question can cause someone else, for someone without any industry experience, it can also be the most effective and efficient way to get some much-needed tips and expertise that they would otherwise not have easy access to.

So given the big imposition that brain-picking can be on someone’s time and expenses, what’s the best way to ask someone if you can pick theirs?

2. How to Ask the Question “Can I Pick Your Brain for a Minute?”

First of all, it’s probably best to avoid the “pick your brain” expression entirely.

The phrase has become so cliched and overused that anyone who hears it is bound to associate it with endless meetings and overbearing emails from ambitious young workers.

“I don’t want to keep you too long. I was just hoping you could tell me in excruciating detail what led you to making every decision that got you to where you are today. Are you gonna finish that water?”

When it comes to making the ask, there are a few other useful dos and don’ts you should follow as well:

DO:

  • Use email — that way, the other person can respond at their leisure. Asking someone in person might make it easier on you, but it puts the pressure on them to come up with an answer on the spot.
  • Give them a specific amount of time you want to talk to them and keep it short. If they know you only want to talk for 15 minutes, they’re more likely to be up for that than for some amorphous, unplanned amount of meeting time.
  • Ask to talk on the phone. Coffee and lunch dates seem nice, but they take up a lot of time in travel and ordering and all that, and the other person is well aware of this by now. You’re much more likely to get a response if they know they can do it whenever they like.

DON’T:

  • Demand they talk to you at a specific time. You’re already imposing on them — let them choose the meeting time, and be open to whatever time they offer, even if it’s a little inconvenient for you.
  • Forget to give them a specific reason for the meeting. If all you say is that you want to talk to them about their career, they might worry again about how long that will take — instead, give them a specific topic you want to ask them about and let the conversation flow naturally from there.
  • Take up more of their time than you asked for. If the meeting starts to run late, tell them you can let them go if they need to — only stay on the line if they tell you they still have more time to speak to you.

3. Saying No When You Need To: How To Deal With Someone Who’s Trying To Pick Your Brain

Even if people ask you in the mindful, polite way described above, it’s still possible that you won’t have any time to offer them.

We’ve been looking at it from the asker’s perspective — now, let’s look at it from the other side of the aisle.

Let’s say you’re a media luminary, some sort of field professional, who on a given day receives dozens of emails from young workers asking you to talk about how you got to where you are today.

“Sorry, hang on, I just got nine more emails from people asking me how they can also get on the 30 Under 30 list. It’s like, buddy, I’m 31. That part of my life is over. I’m just a professional beard model now like everyone else.”

You don’t want to reject these folks, especially if they happen to be people you work with in some capacity, but you really don’t have the time to talk to all of them.

So what do you do?

Here are a few tactics you can take to try to weed out some of the requests you don’t have the time or inclination to take on:

  • Tell them you’re busy, but in an artful way. Say that you’re on a deadline, or that your calendar is full for the foreseeable future. You shouldn’t have to say any more than that — especially if this person is a stranger, you have no obligation to tell them anything else.
  • Send them a link to some helpful resources, regardless of whether or not you had a hand in making those resources (although if you did, it might go a long way toward shutting the conversation down).
  • Tell them that you’re happy to meet with them, and then let them know your hourly rate. They’ll probably be too embarrassed to ask you for anything pro bono, and if you’re lucky, they might even take you up on the price.

And if all else fails or you find you can’t use any of these excuses — or simply don’t want to — remember that “no” is always an acceptable answer.

This person is asking for you to take a lot of time out of your day. They should be aware of this as well as the fact that “no” is a reasonable response that they could receive.

If they take that badly after all that then, at the end of the day, it’s on them.

Wrapping Up: “Can I pick your brain for a minute?”

Whatever side of the question you’re on, hopefully, this gives you a little insight into how to handle the request more effectively than you might have otherwise.

Despite all the negative hype around these brain-picking sessions, they can still be useful for those who approach them in the right way.

Networking is important, after all, and the person giving advice might find that they have something to gain from talking to someone less experienced — even if it’s just the smug feeling of satisfaction they get from knowing something someone else doesn’t.

“It was great talking to you, Jim. I love reminding myself how smart I am and how much of an idiot everyone around me is.”

Anyhow, whether you’re asking or responding, we wish you the best of luck! Here are some other links to help you on your way:

How to Show Promotions on Your Resume
Resume Buzzwords to Avoid and Which Ones will Help You Get the Job
These 10 Steps Will Help You Answer the Question “What Should I Do With My Life?”

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