When you’re an expert in any field, people may regularly ask to “pick your brain,” buy you lunch or some other form of asking for advice. For free, of course.
If you feel conflicted at time like these, it makes perfect sense. Your schedule is packed, yet your instinct might still be to jump in and help. In fact, your generosity and desire to make a difference likely played a huge part in you going into business to begin with.
But in certain instances you’ll need to draw a line. Maybe you’re simply too busy or you sense someone is seeking endless free consulting without giving anything back. No one likes feeling used. Yet you know these informal meetings can help with growing your network, building your business through referrals and more. It can be a sticky situation.
Even when you feel confident with the concept of saying no, asserting yourself is a skill that takes practice and often doesn’t come naturally. In the moment you may be at a loss for words, agonizing over the right thing to say to put up a supportive-yet-firm boundary that doesn’t burn any bridges.
It’s important to become familiar with concrete strategies and scripts so you can maintain that ideal mix of being generous without being taken advantage of.
The next time someone asks to “pick your brain”, you can:
1. Offer Help—On Your Terms
When an acquaintance contacts you to set up a coffee date to talk business, first get a sense of what specific questions they have. This narrows down the kind of support they’re looking for and gives you the opportunity to quickly offer help—without meeting up.
After you’re clear on what they’re asking for, you can follow up with:
“Great question! Here’s a [book/podcast/networking group] that addresses [particular topic]. Check it out—I think you’ll find it helpful!”
By politely directing them to existing material, you’re still establishing yourself as useful while protecting your time.
There are several other ways to genuinely help those who reach out to you for advice. Just because you don’t have time for a brain-picking session doesn’t mean you can’t offer your expertise in other ways.
You might say something along the lines of:
“Thanks for your question! While I’m not able to make it for coffee or lunch…”
- …here’s someone else you might consider hiring.
- …I’ll be at [event or conference] next month. I’d love to connect with you there.
- …I’d be happy to answer your most pressing question over email.
2. Make your advice scalable
If you’re being hit up for informational interviews or mentorship on a certain topic, you may find yourself fielding the same questions again and again. A great approach is to make your knowledge scalable. Some examples might be creating a frequently asked questions document you can send in reply or creating canned responses in Gmail.
You might write something like this:
Thanks for reaching out. As you can imagine, I get many requests for advice so I’ve compiled all of my best tips in this Google Doc. I think you’ll find them very helpful. If there’s more information you’d like after reading this, feel free to send over two or three questions, and I’ll do my best to answer them in a timely matter. Best of luck!
You can display these same FAQs, a page of resources, or helpful templates on your website—it all depends on your niche and the types of questions you get asked most often.
These sanity-saving approaches allow you to prioritize your time while also honoring your dedication to helping people who can benefit from your expertise.
3. Explain how they can hire you.
Your response to those who reach out to you is all about deciding exactly how much time you’re willing to share, setting boundaries around what you will and won’t do, and—most importantly—sticking to those boundaries. If people want to pick your brain about something you get paid for doing, it’s perfectly fair and reasonable to segue into explaining how they can hire you.
Next time you get a pick-your-brain request, you could say something like:
“My work schedule is packed and lunch/coffee isn’t possible, but I could see us working together on this. When you get a chance, fill out this form [or other intake protocol you have in place]. I’ll write up a proposal, send it over and we can choose a date to get started.”
They may respond positively to this idea or they may remind you they were just hoping to have coffee and a conversation. In that case, say something along the lines of:
“Thanks for asking, but I do charge for my time and expertise. If you change your mind, I’m here!”
No matter how you handle these interactions, you may feel a little uncomfortable at first. The good news is it will feel more natural as you practice your own versions of these scripts.
It’s all about creating self-honoring boundaries, respecting your worth and your work and always behaving in a way that’s diplomatic, professional and aligned with your values.