How to Pick Someone's Brain without Being Annoying

Updated: Nov 2, 2019


Networking is a great way to grow a business, regardless of what industry you are in. Whether you are an established small business of head of a big brand, "picking someone's brain" is essential to evolve personally and professionally. But how do you ask someone for their time without being annoying?


I try to have an in-person meet up with a new person several times a week. Though I don't outright ask "Can I pick your brain?", many have asked me the exact question. Having been on both sides as the brain-picker and the brain-picked, it can be beneficial for both parties when done right.


First, what does "Pick Your Brain" even mean?


Since I can't always control my face, I can't help but cringe when someone asks me if they can pick my brain. Depending on how it is asked, it can sometimes comes across as salesy and downright needy.


When you ask someone if you can pick their brain, you're asking them if you can ask them questions about a topic. The questions can cover details of how they got to where they are, options, advice, strategies and so forth.


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When asking someone for their time, it's important to be polite and upfront about your intentions. On many occasions, people have asked for help and framed it in a way that was misleading.


For instance, one business owner stated she would like to hire me but wanted to understand more about what I do. After weeks of "picking my brain", she ghosted me.


The thing is, if she had been upfront, I probably would not have felt as misled and would have offered my tips anyway. Not only would I not work with her if she reached out again, I would probably not refer her business to my community.


How to ask in a polite and natural way:



1. Do the work.


Make the effort to schedule the call or in-person meeting at a time/location that is convenient for them. If you are scheduling a phone call, be the one to call them. If you are meeting them for coffee, offer to pay for the coffee.


2. Acknowledge that you realize you are asking for a favor.


Let them know you understand that they may not have the time or bandwidth to meet up. By giving them the space to say no, you can leave the door open for future conversations should their schedule clear up.


3. Express your appreciation of their time.


It's one thing to send a follow-up thank you note or buy them a coffee. It's another to extend the favor in return. If you don't plan to hire them, let them know you will keep them in mind when you come across someone who could use their product or service.


4. Be upfront about your intentions.


If you aren't upfront with your intentions, the other party probably will pick up on it sooner rather than later. And that may not always end well if you weren't clear about your goals from the start.


Explain why you want to pick their brain in particular, as opposed to just talking to anyone else in a similar position. If your questions can easily be answered with a simple Google search, then you might want to rethink your approach.


5. Keep it short and simple.


Keeping phone conversations, in-person meetings, or emails short and simple goes a long way. It not only respects the other person's time, but also their mental bandwidth.


As in the earlier example, when someone is just trying to get free consultations month after month, it rarely ends well for both sides.


6. Understand professional boundaries.


Doctors, financial advisors, and therapists probably have it the worst in my opinion. In any industry, "Can I pick your brain?" can move from a simple favor to billable hours.


At the end of the day, I'm much more willing to go out of my way for others when they respect professional boundaries.


7. Re-frame the question: "Can I Pick Your Brain"?


Think about it in the literal sense. It sounds gross, it comes across icky. Put yourself in the other person's shoes. They are probably asked the same question week after week. It can get exhausting.


Re-framing the questions can make all the difference. Try "Can I schedule a 15-minute call to chat about XYZ?" Or "Can I buy you coffee to learn more about XYZ?"


Got a Q? I just might have an A!



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