How to answer the dreaded question, ‘Can I pick your brain?’

Professionals are learning to say no to these unpaid inquiries
By Esther D. Kustanowitz  Published on 10/11/2018 at 11:48 AM EDT
Should you lend your (free) professional advice over coffee or lunch? You need to decide what your price is worth first. Rawpixel/Unsplash

I hear it at least once a week: a request for help on a project, idea, fundraising initiative or career. And although Mayim Bialik may be our in-house neuroscientist, even I know this much about my brain: Its spongy pink matter is arranged a certain way and doesn’t enjoy being picked. So hearing “can I pick your brain?” causes my face to contort as if experiencing pain. And I’m not the only one.

This question hurts my ears and my heart,” said Sara Shapiro-Plevan, founder and lead consultant at Rimonim Consulting. “It says immediately that the person doing the ask has no appreciation for the value of relationships and has no interest in investing in a reciprocal relationship with me.”

L.A.-based writer, storyteller and host Sarah Klegman (who has also written for Grok Nation) has mixed feelings about the request for a brain pick, “like I’m about to be taken advantage of, but also grateful someone finds me of use/values my brain.”

“When someone asks to take me to lunch or coffee to “pick my brain” about something, it generally means they want free advice,” said Eric Elkins, CEO and chief strategist of Social Media in Denver. “Clients pay us a lot of money for our strategy and insights. It’s not something I’ll generally give away for free.”

“Asking if you can pick my brain is akin to asking Nordstrom if they will give you a free pair of shoes,” said Wendy Aiello, the Denver-based president of Aiello PR & Marketing. “Our professional experience and our time are products. Our work support our families. My treasured clients pay for my time. What’s in my brain, 30 years of study, hard work and hands-on experience does not and should not be given away for free. That question is as insulting as asking an accountant to do your taxes for free.”

That said, we all have moments when we need—and have to ask for—help, so we understand when people ask us, they are acknowledging that we are experts, professionals, keepers of the information. So how do we assert our value while not crushing someone who has been vulnerable enough to ask for help? How do we offer help without getting taken advantage of?

Practice saying no. It pays to start with this one because it’s one of the hardest things to do for many of us.

Know who is asking. Who referred this person to you? Is it someone you have a special relationship or element of trust with? What’s their story? “I’m happy to give an hour to an old friend, family, or someone who is just out of school,” Klegman said. “If it’s someone who is looking to change careers, or someone who is currently in a place where they just need some support and won’t be immediately or clearly benefiting financially from my support, then that makes it easier to say yes.” Or as Aiello says, “Relationships do matter, but close friends understand that time is valuable. If a friend is in trouble, I gladly offer assistance, but generally a pick-your-brain request is someone asking you to give them free work. If you’re close enough that we’ve shared a holiday meal, you can ask advice. My children’s close friends can pick my brain. My long-time clients’ kids can pick my brain. If you have given to a non-profit or candidate that I support, that buys you some time. As with much of life, this is a matter of quid-pro-quo.” 

Get clarity as to what is being asked for, and honestly assess whether it’s something that you want to do. When I first started freelancing, I reached out to a lot of people to see if they could help me find work or expand my skill base. Some of those meetings led to deep friendships or became important connections that I still rely on—and contribute to today. I’m grateful that they took the meeting with me. And 10 years ago, I moved to a new city and had many coffee dates and informational appointments with people to help me settle in. So when someone reaches out to me—especially if they’re in a career shift, new to L.A., or just starting out—I ask them more specifically what they’re looking for, and if I can offer expertise and have the time, I often take the meeting. Most of these aren’t income-bearing, but it does feel better if there’s some acknowledgment that my time has value: a cup of coffee or a lunch can be a way of saying, “I know your time is valuable, and I can’t pay you, but here’s a token of my appreciation for your insight.” The face-to-face can be awkward with someone you don’t know, but also serves as an opportunity to connect on a level you don’t get with email and voice. Elkins said that he is “all about making warm introductions for people. But when it comes down to the specifics of running social media plans to drive business goals, that’s a different matter.”

Treat your business like big business. Think of a big law firm with major clients and how they can afford to take on a “pro bono” case every once in a while to help a local entrepreneur or nonprofit. Identify how many hours—if any—you’re willing to devote to “pro bono” clients. If the answer is none, then go back to No. 1. But designating an hour or two a month as “pro bono” hours may help you feel like you’re giving back on a schedule that you can live with because you’re setting the parameters.

Set your own boundaries. If you do decide to help, how will you structure that help? Will you give them a 30-minute phone call? Will you permit someone to buy you a cup of coffee or lunch in exchange for your counsel? Will you offer a “friends and family” or nonprofit rate? Shapiro-Plevan will offer an hour of free consulting time to “almost anyone who is a potential client, as I see it that time as an investment, and as client development.” Elkins instituted a “Lunch With Eric” option in 2011: an hour of his undivided attention in exchange for lunch and $100. ”You’ll leave with specific next steps, and I’ll have a full belly,” he wrote in a Facebook post announcing this initiative. The $100 fee “lets me know you’re serious about whatever it is you’re working on, and it gives me the ability to open up my schedule for you.” Klegman often takes calls and meetings with people who aren’t paying her. But after the initial conversation, she said, “I’m pretty good at saying things like, “That’s actually something people hire me to do.”

Have something standard that you offer people who ask your help. For a while, people kept asking me about how to start their own blogs, or how to get started with social media or pitching mainstream media about their events. I created two-pagers on each subject, so I could send it to them without it costing me any additional time. I explained that if they needed more information after that, I would be glad to help them at a special rate. Shapiro Plevan also has a tool kit that she uses for responding to people who ask for help. “I’m getting better and better at using those tools at my disposal in ways that are polite, thoughtful and honest,” she said.

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