how to turn down requests to meet, network, or pick your brain

Gain even a little bit of success in your field, and you’re likely to start getting requests from strangers or near-strangers to meet, network or “pick your brain.”

In the beginning, you might enjoy this – it’s flattering, after all, and it can be a way to pay forward help that you yourself received from near-strangers earlier in your own career. But you might reach a point when your schedule is so busy that you need to start turning down some of these requests in order to focus on your own work priorities or to enjoy some downtime outside of work commitments.

But it’s tough to say “no” to people who are reaching out to you. In fact, it’s so touchy that many people in this situation end up saying “yes” just because they can’t figure out how to decline.

Here are six ways to politely turn down requests to meet, network or pick your brain.

1. Just say no – kindly. There’s nothing wrong with saying, “I wish I could help, but the reality is that my schedule is packed right now, and I need to turn down some requests in order to be able to ever see my family.” The vast majority of people will understand this. And would you really want to take time out of your day to help a stranger who didn’trespect that?

2. Suggest a different option. It might take up too much of your time to agree to lunch or a coffee meeting, but maybe you’d be willing to offer something else instead, such as a 10-minute phone call or answering a few questions over email. That can often be significantly faster, and it also pushes the person to clarify precisely what they want your input on, as opposed to a more free-floating – and often longer – in-person meeting. It’s perfectly fine to say, “Unfortunately my schedule makes it tough to fit in coffee meetings, but I’d be glad to set up a 10-minute phone call if you’d like.”

3. Ask for more details. Say something like, “Before we talk, could you send me a list of the questions you’re most interested in me answering?” Or you might ask for a write-up of the person’s business plan or any other helpful documentation. An astonishing portion of people asking to meet will never circle back with the information you’re requesting, which will certainly make you feel better about not spending your time on their initial request.

4. Suggest that the person try again in a few months. For instance, you might say, “My schedule is really packed this month, but if you circle back to me in six weeks, it might be easier to set something up.” Many people will never follow back up, either because they forget, or because they get the information they’re seeking somewhere else.

5. Charge for your time. This isn’t appropriate for networking meetings or informational interview requests, but when someone wants to pick your brain for a new profit-making business endeavor, there’s nothing wrong with saying, “I’d be glad to set up a short-term consulting agreement. I usually charge $X per hour for this type of input.”

6. Try to be helpful in a different way. Perhaps you can refer the person to someone else in your field who you know enjoys taking these meetings or to an online resource with good advice on the topic they’re interested in. Or, if you routinely get the same sorts of questions from multiple people, you might even consider writing up a short FAQ that answers the most common questions you receive and supplying that to people when it seems like it would be helpful.

Of course, none of this is intended to imply that you should never help people for free. In fact, the most successful people are usually generous with their time; the key is that they do it strategically. Rather than saying “yes” to any request that comes your way, be thoughtful about the types of requests you’re happy to help out with – and don’t feel guilty about turning down the rest.

I originally published this at U.S. News & World Report.

{ 24 comments… read them below }

  1. fposte

    I’ve been encountering a new version of this recently, which is people who assume that one such conversation is the start of an ongoing relationship. I’m trying to figure out ways to diminish that expectation without sounding like “Don’t think of asking me out.”

    1. Noelle

      Are you talking about situations where people ask for coffee but then expect you to help them get a job after that? I’m often in that situation too and I feel guilty like I’m leading them on even though I tell them in advance I probably can’t help them get a new job.

      1. fposte

        It’s more often “Hey, can I talk to you about X?” Okay. We have a nice, generously long (IMHO) conversation about X. Then a few weeks or months later, it’s “Hey, I’m ready to talk more with you about X!” I feel weird ending the first conversation with “Now, go away and never talk to me again” when they haven’t suggested that they’re going to try, but then they come back and expect the same amount of time again, and wow, that does not work for me.

        1. Noelle

          Oh, I’ve had that happen too. More often than not, it’s from people who are working in jobs similar to mine (or my past ones) and want to pick my brain. I’m more than happy to give feedback, but I can’t just do their brainstorming for them long term, you know?

  2. TCO

    Great advice. I’m part of an innovative local development project that’s gaining national attention. We hear from people all of the time who want to do what we’re doing and want our help. We love talking with these folks–we want our model to spread–but we’re an all-volunteer group and our time is limited.

    We’ve used a variety of Alison’s techniques to manage this influx. When people contact us (generally by e-mail) we have a pretty standard (but personalized) response that 1) refers them to some materials and FAQ available on our website 2) asks them to contact us again after they have reviewed the material if they still have specific questions.

    It’s pretty rare that anyone follows back up. Most of the people we hear from aren’t really in the serious planning stages (and most of them probably won’t ever get there); they’re just really excited about what we do. Actually pulling off a project like ours is a tremendous amount of work, so only a small portion of people who want something like this to happen in their community will actually follow through to get it off the ground.

    If people do follow up with specific questions, we’ll meet for coffee or come speak to their group (if they are local), or chat by phone or e-mail. We try to pay attention to what the most common follow-up questions are in case we can make those answers more easily accessible on our website. If they really need a lot of help, we direct them to the paid consultants who are experts in this kind of work and are familiar with our model. Someday we might offer paid consulting of our own as part of our revenue model, but we’re not there yet.

  3. Elizabeth West

    I already put it out on my blog that I am unlikely to beta-read unpublished manuscripts. Some authors offer this as a paid service, but 1) they are generally far more experienced than I am, and 2) they have already established a reputation so that if they find themselves in a Secret Window situation (i.e. “You stole my story!”), it’s less likely to result in blowback. Plus, some people just cannot take any kind of feedback, and the resulting drama could punch a hole in the sun.

    If you don’t have time to help and you know where the person making the inquiry can find the information they’re seeking, it’s always nice to point them in that direction. You don’t have to spend four hours looking up links for them. But you can suggest they google writing groups in their area, for example, and give them a few pointers on what to avoid.

  4. Dynamic Beige

    I’ve really got to write “May I first ask what this is about?” on a Post-it and put it on the corner of my computer monitor for when people call me to pick my brain. Clients call and ask if I’ve got a moment and I say sure! And then the brain picking begins and I facepalm.

  5. Ann Furthermore

    I like option 3, and I’ve used it before. I’ll ask people for some more details of what they want to do or discuss, so that going in I have a high-level idea of what we’ll be talking about. Most people will send me something. For those that never follow up, I don’t feel bad because I made a good faith effort to help them, and that’s that.

  6. Lily in NYC

    Great article. We have the problem that people ask our president for informational interviews and he feels bad saying no, so he will respond to the person, cc’ing someone else in the office and write: “I’m too busy, but XX, cc’d here, would be happy to help you”. And then poor XX has no choice but to meet some random person even if they don’t want to. We never say no to these requests and it is ridiculous because we get way too many.

  7. Elysian

    I would like to add, if you want me to say yes, make it easy to say yes. I’ve only had a handful of these requests, but they always seems to come from people who can’t schedule. I’ll tell them, “I’m free Wednesday for lunch, Thursday after 6, or Friday for coffee before 9am” or something and they’ll come back to me with something like “I’m free pretty much any time.” And then I will never get back to that person. I think the biggest reason these handful of requests have gotten lost to me is because the person on the other end just waited for me to schedule for them, and I didn’t have time to go back and check my calendar 14 times.

  8. Jenny S.

    I’ve found that #5 – charge for your time – tends to make people go away. Which is fine by me!

  9. Ashley the Nonprofit Exec

    I need to print this whole thing out and hang it on my wall. I really do feel rude saying no, but I just get waaaay too many requests. And no, meeting after work is not better for me. I really prefer to meet on the phone for stuff like this. It’s so much easier to say “great! I’ve scheduled you for 11:30 to 11:45 on the 12th.” and then it’s not weird when you really do end after 15 minutes.

    Also – delegate. While I get tired of these requests, many of my employees take it as a compliment to be asked to meet with someone like this.

  10. Noelle

    I have a problem with people asking for advice, not following it, then being surprised when things don’t work out. I work in a competitive field and people are constantly asking me how to break into it. My answer – it took a really long time and I had to get the experience first at jobs that kind of sucked. A lot of people automatically tune that part out, continue to try to get a job without getting the experience, then wonder why they’re not getting interviewed. I’m happy to meet with people, but when they make it clear they don’t care about my advice and just want me to help them get a job, I start declining.

    1. Amy

      I think a big reason why people start declining to do this kind of thing is because of how inconsiderate some of the people who ask for help can be. I always try to help people from my undergrad and grad school who contact me but I have had such bad experiences recently that I am getting burnt out. I once had someone contact me about working in a specific department at my company and I told him honestly I had no interaction with that department but he said he wanted to meet anyways. He rescheduled our meeting several times, then proceeded to ask questions about that department that I had already said I knew nothing about! I had someone call me and say they were interested in working for a small company when mine is the largest in the field in our city (5 minutes of googling could have figured that out) and I have had several people email me asking what the hiring process is for X position or what are hiring managers looking for and when I send them that information I never hear back, not even a “thanks for your time” (I assume because I didn’t offer them a job in my reply).

  11. Noelle

    I think you’re right regarding the inconsiderate part. I’m more than happy to help people when I can, but I’m not a job bank and 9 times out of 10 I’m really not going to be able to help. Even when I can help, like pointing them towards job openings or passing their resumes along, they usually won’t follow my advice. I actually knew about an opening and told a couple people their best bet was applying directly because the hiring manager preferred that. Not a single one would do it, begged me to pass their resume along, and when I said that would actually HURT their chances, they got annoyed.

    1. lonepear

      Seriously. I used to work at an organization that had a bigshot on its board–whom I did in fact know, but I was by no means close enough to have any special influence with him. Bigshot’s website states pretty clearly that all speaking requests, even from people he knows, should go through his assistant so that the person actually managing his calendar can schedule him, and that he did not want direct requests. People would try to ask me to intervene specially on their behalf and talk to him directly… and they seemed to think I was fobbing them off when I said that no, really, he wants you to email his assistant and he would not be happy with either of us if I asked.

  12. kristinyc

    I had a lot of trouble with this in the last few months, when I quit my job, started freelancing, and started teaching a class about my field (email marketing). I’d get students from my class asking to meet for coffee so they could “pick my brain” about email, and then people who heard about my class but hadn’t taken it wanting to do the same. I don’t know if they realized that they were essentially asking me to consult for free (although one did actually turn into a lucrative consulting project, so there’s that).

    I’ve also had more junior people asking to meet for coffee specifically to network with me. As in, one guy emailed me and said “You look like a good person to know in the industry and I’d like to network with you.” I met with the person once, since a lot of people helped me out early on in my career and I wanted to pay it forward, but when he introduced me to his boss and his boss wanted to meet to “pick my brain,” I’m suddenly busy. (I did just start a full-time job today, so I actually am busy…)

    Just curious – anyone think this is gender related? I feel like this happens to me more than my male peers, but I don’t know if people are seeing me as a pushover, or just a better resource. :)

    1. ArtsNerd

      Congrats on the job! I think the gender part is hard to tease out, but I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if female makes you seem more approachable to these networkers. And they probably aren’t consciously thinking cynically about your being a “pushover,” but that also doesn’t mean there aren’t subtle biases at play.

      But also, you ARE a great resource. I love the Email Snarketing blog. I was just showing it to my business partner not too long ago, since we’re planning some critique posts in a similar vein (though not directly overlapping your turf.) Do you plan to continue it?

  13. The Toxic Avenger

    This article is so timely. I almost posted something related to the open thread to get advice from the AAM community. I get asked for networking requests all.the.time. I try and help, because I put myself in that person’s shoes – what if I were unemployed, and working my network? What if I needed a hand? However, lately, it is starting to make me grumpy. There are a couple of people in particular who are really persistent (hey! I saw Job A on line – do you have any contacts there?? What about Job B? And Job C)? Argh! I will start setting gentle boundaries with the annoying ones and use the tips in this article.

  14. saragh45@yahoo.com

    It is simply amazing the sheer amount of americans asking for free this, free that–moochers. Coffee time is a consult, who in their right mind would give away thousands of dollars worth of blood, sweat, and tear expertise for FREE, or for charred cuppa? Who? amateurs, trust funders, 1%’s, inheritancers/idle rich? who? taxes, education, rent, car, petrol, utilities, insurance, etc…etc…are certainly not free. Time is money. There is NO cafe time–it is a consult, that is billiable hours. Say no to moochers, or you’ll be the chump. Pick my brain, ya pick my pockets.

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