What to Say When Someone Asks to ‘Pick Your Brain’

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It's not a resounding "yes".

It’s a phrase that’s become increasingly common in the business world: “It would be great to pick your brain sometime.” If you’ve experienced any degree of success in your chosen industry, you’ve probably been on the receiving end of this, often uttered or typed by someone you barely know or have never met, someone who would just love to buy you coffee on one condition – that you fill their knowledge gap with your years’ of experience.

“I get asked to get my ‘brains picked’ all the time,” says Claudia Barriga-Larriviere, head of people at BlueChilli and an advisor at SheStarts. “For starters, it sounds horrific. I also find the transactional nature of the offer very off-putting. I’d rather someone asked me to explore ways to collaborate or figure out how we can help each other solve a specific problem. I spent a lot of time – and my parents spent a lot of money – acquiring the knowledge and experience my brain holds. The idea of having someone pick it gives me generosity burnout and hurts my inner capitalist.”

She’s not the only professional to feel this way. According to a Human Resources survey, “Can I pick your brain?” is one of the top “office jargon” buzz phrases that professionals hate, alongside “touch base” and an overuse of the word “leverage.”

So, how can you respond politely, without offending the asker or shutting down a potential business opportunity? Claudia shares her top tips.

1. Avoid the meeting

“My most precious asset is my time,” says Claudia. “It’s fleeting and you are never getting it back. The No.1 way to avoid getting your brains picked is to not show up for the actual picking. I normally say, ‘That sounds great but I have very limited time for exploratory meetings, so we might have to leave it there.’ If that doesn’t get me off the hook, I try to…

2. Make it easy to hire you

“This has become my go-to tactic in the past year. Since I become head of people at BlueChilli, I frequently get asked to ‘consult’ on how to engage employees, how to recruit for teams and how to improve diversity in teams. That’s the bulk of what I get paid by BlueChilli to do! So I say, “Great! I don’t have an ABN to invoice you, but I’ll check with the accounts team at BlueChilli and see what the hourly rate for me is…” In fact, BlueChilli hasn’t asked me to do that. They are a very generous company and we do community work and give free-of-charge advice all the time. We just don’t do it indiscriminately. If you make it clear your time not only has value, but that you already have a certain value assigned to it – the brain picking requests tend to either go away or turn into paid work. Either way, you win!

3. Ask for what they need, then point them somewhere else

“If turning down the meeting or making yourself billable failed to work, ask them to tell you what they actually need help with. Nine times out of 10, it’s a very generic thing that they could easily Google – so point them there. The tenth time, it is something specific that would need dedicated advice and care, which is when I go back to Advice No.2 and make it easy for them to hire me or point them to someone who they can hire to solve their problem.

4. Do this with a clear conscience

“Stop feeling guilty about this. It is not your job to placate free loaders. I was raised to default to generosity, and I am lucky to have landed at a company that does so constantly. However, everything has its limits. You’re responsible to set boundaries around things that are valuable to you. To me, that is my time and my acquired knowledge. None of those things are easy to come by – I like to treat them as such.”

Katrina

Even though it can be annoying I stay outwardly positive and say I’d be happy to book you in but it looks like my next available session/appointment is a few weeks away” Usually this is a good prompt that your time will be costing them something if they’re willing to wait. It also gives them a graceful exit to find another brain to pick if they don’t want to wait (or pay).

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Brian Seaman

Ok, well now that I’ve read the context as Amy has provided, yes, I would think twice in such a scenario and probably decline as well. However, if it is a friend of long-standing who’s seeking genuine input, then I would happily oblige and without finding one of the oldest cliches (i.e. pick your brains) in the English language in any way offensive.

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