How to Respond to “Can I Pick Your Brain?”

As a freelancer or business owner, you may have been asked on more than one occasion, “Can I pick your brain?” or some variation of that question. Certainly, with the line of business I’m in, I’m fielding these questions multiple times a day.  It’s flattering to know that someone values what you are doing enough to ask you that question.  At the same time, you might experience a feeling that something isn’t quite right with the exchange, or perhaps evening a little feeling of dread.

You want to say “yes.” You want to help. Maybe, this is a person you want to establish a relationship with. But, you feel like if you say “yes,” you set a precedent, and will feel pressured to say “yes” to all the people who come afterwards. Not to mention, if you spend a lot of time providing free advice, you may not have enough time left in the day to work on your own business. Last, but not least, you are concerned with your reputation and don’t want to be perceived as a jerk for saying “no.”

Over the past few years, I’ve had to learn how to respond to these questions in a way that respects and values my time while still being helpful to others. Here are some tips to support you in handling these questions wherever they may come up.

Provide Resources

The first way I handle this question is by pointing the person to a resource I’ve created or found.  For example, our website answers basic questions about our cooperative model and programs and services.  However, I realized that our website wasn’t enough to answer common questions from entrepreneurs about their business development, so I began publishing a weekly blog post covering these topics. This enables me to refer people to a post that is relevant to their situation.  Also, if I have an upcoming workshop or am speaking at a conference about the topic, I’ll invite that person to attend. By sharing these public resources, I’m still able to give my insights about the topic without having to directly invest a lot of free time.

Explain How You Work

Because I’m in the business of providing advice to entrepreneurs, I get a lot of requests to pick my brain about something I get paid for doing, such as helping someone develop their business plan. In these cases, I politely respond with information about how we work with people in these situations: “I’d be happy to support you in developing your business. To see how we can work together, please review the Creating a Business Roadmap class and Business Advising Services sections of our website. If you are interested in working together in either of these ways, please submit an application online and we’ll set up an enrollment consultation.” I find that if they are truly interested in working together, they are willing to go through the process and pay for the program or business advising services.

Be Clear About Your Time

I’ve always found it challenging to just say “no,” especially if I know the person.  Instead of saying “no” and feeling bad about it, I respond honestly about my time constraints: “I’d be happy to meet with you but the work I’m doing to expand the business is going to take up a significant amount of my time over the next month. Please feel free to reach out to me closer to next month to set up an appointment then.” Oftentimes, the person will either realize they can answer their question on their own or they will seek advice from somewhere else.  If they come back to me to schedule an appointment at that later date, then I’m more likely to set aside time to help.

Hold Office Hours

From time to time, I’ve held office hours for participants in our accelerator programs or have participated as a business advisor in another organization’s office hours or coaching corner.  Through the office hours, I can carve out a couple hours for people to schedule short, free consultations with me. Because they are short consultations, it puts responsibility on them to come prepared with specific questions or topics they want to cover.  With this type of structure, I feel good about setting boundaries around my time while still being accessible for questions.

To be honest, handling requests like this felt uncomfortable at first. Yet, the more I practice, the more natural it becomes.  And, by setting these clear and healthy boundaries around my time, I know I’m positioning myself and the business to thrive.