how to set boundaries with people who want to pick your brain

A reader writes:

I’m relatively new to nonprofit leadership and often find myself in a situation where, as the head of a reputable organization in a specific field, I get requests from people who want to “pick my brain” about some aspect of our work. Often, these people are thinking of starting their own similar program (usually in another location, so competition isn’t an issue), and their questions are quite broad, like “how did you get started” and asking me in detail how all of our programs work.

I used to be a teacher, so my natural inclination is to help them out. On the other hand, I feel proprietary about the expertise we’ve developed and refined over the years and I balk at giving it out for free. In addition, my time and resources are already stretched pretty thin with managing more fruitful partnerships. When I’ve rejected these requests, however gently, the advice seeker often turns a little huffy, lamenting what could’ve been a great “collaboration.”

Are there other leaders out there who set boundaries with pushy brain-pickers, and if so, what are those boundaries, and how do you convey them politely but firmly? I honestly can’t see what I or my organization stands to gain from these one-sided conversations, but I don’t want to harm our reputation or burn potential bridges. For what it’s worth, we already do a fair amount of consulting, collaborating, and partnership building.

You can read my answer to this question over at Inc. today, where I’m revisiting letters that have been buried in the archives here from years ago (and often updating/expanding my answers to them).

{ 34 comments… read them below }

  1. Academic Librarian*

    all good answers for this one. I had the same issue at my previous position- and for community and stakeholder relations couldn’t say no. We developed a 3 hour workshop that individuals and organizations paid a nominal fee. (covered overhead and snacks) I was able to push most requests for information to the “workshop we give in the spring” I also spoke annually at two stakeholder professional meetings. I would say- oh I will be covering that at the TPOT (Teachers of Pottery Teas) conference in the fall. Are you a member?

    1. Rehabilitating Mr Wiggles*

      Oh – I love this so much! It’s beautiful: you don’t say “no”, but you shift the onus onto the other person. You make ’em pay for it – not that you need the money, but a) charging will immediately filter out the less-than-serious people, and b) the people who pay will be a better audience (and, having paid something, they’ll feel that they got something good and exclusive for the price).

      And if they do go ahead with it, you know them, they know you – it might actually turn into some kind of w
      worthwhile collaboration down the road.

      Again: this is wonderful stuff! Even better than putting it all in a PDF on the website.!

  2. Starboard*

    This happens to me all the time! As much as I would love to help everyone, there just aren’t enough hours in the day. Whenever I know there is nothing for me/my organization to gain, I tell the person that my schedule is slammed in preparation for an event, and I send them various links to websites about non-profit management, how to get started, etc. I try to be as helpful as I can by directing them where to get useful info without actually having to meet or talk in the phone.

  3. Transformer*

    I’ve had to do this with people who want me to review their resumes. I send them my favorite articles from AAM and EHRL as well as one or two samples that I have created. If the person reads them and spends the time, then I will help them. If they don’t.. then I move on without regret because I wont help someone who isn’t willing to help themselves first.

  4. Bee Eye LL*

    I have worked in IT since before Y2K and the “pick your brain” thing comes up a lot when people start asking about their personal computers, or worse – their website. I try to be helpful but also not get tied up in something. Sometimes these questions can lead to little side jobs which can be nice if you have time but also people can start taking advantage and really bug the hell out of you. It’s even worse if the person is a higher-up. I guess the bottom line is to try and be helpful but in small bits and make sure your time is not being mismanaged.

  5. cv*

    If you’re a leader in your organization, also think about whether you can delegate some of these meetings. There might be someone else whose calendar is a little less packed who could offer a lot of the same information, especially when the requests are a general “I want to learn how your organization operates” type of thing. Lower level employees might appreciate the networking opportunities more than someone who does more community-facing schmoozing as part of the job, too.

    At one of my prior jobs the right person might have been the prior executive director who had started the organization. She had since retired, but still wanted to feel involved and appreciated, and would have loved the chance to share her wisdom. At some nonprofits there might be a board member who could field these requests, though that really depends on the situation.

  6. OriginalYup*

    This was a big problem for me when the original post was written, and following these suggestions did make a difference. #3 creating a FAQs list was the biggest time saver — I spent 3 hours writing it one day, and have used it endlessly since.

    I also made a rule for myself that the other person needs to invest a little sweat equity before I commit to any follow-ups. My tendency is to try to make everything easy and seamless for other people generally, so I was putting in all this effort in front-loading things for people who never took a next step. Super frustrating. Now I intentionally stop myself and make sure the other person has taken steps (to schedule an appt, draft a plan, look up requirements) before I do anything else for them. This has cut waaaaaaaaaaaay down on my frustration with the “please why won’t you counter-rotate the earth for me, for free, right now” types.

    1. Nanc*

      “please why won’t you counter-rotate the earth for me, for free, right now”

      A colleague of mine has taken to compiling a list of the most ridiculous he receives and printing them out to stick on his wall under a great picture from the iZombie credits.

      I like the idea of a little generic FAQ to pass along. I think moist folks would appreciate a response and general info.

  7. Come On Eileen*

    I received the most thoughtful and gracious “no” a few years ago that I remember it to this day. I had asked a colleague if I could chat with her about her professional experience as I was in the midst of my job search, and while I don’t remember the exact words she used in turning me down, I remember how impressed I was that she’d found a way to say no that I completely understood and admired. (In fact, I remember emailing her back and saying “hey, I get where you’re coming from and I really appreciate that you’re a person who can say no when you need to.”) We keep in touch to this day and I admire her for finding a balance in fielding all the requests that I know she gets.

      1. Come On Eileen*

        It was something along these lines: “hey, thanks for getting in touch. I wish I could help you, but right now I’m dealing with X, Y and Z at work which has me completely overwhelmed. Right now, I need to focus on these things as my first priority and it doesn’t leave much time left over for questions like the ones you posed. I’m sorry that I don’t have the ability to help, and I’m very flattered that you thought of me. Thanks for understanding & I wish you the best.”

        Smooth, gracious, and left me feeling like she didn’t take her no lightly.

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          Oh, that’s great. Whenever I have to write a particularly tough note, I save it in a “tough notes” folder so I can use the language again in the future. I may add this to it!

  8. Blana del Ray*

    I wonder sometimes if people who want to ‘pick your brain’ really just want to vent a bit and feel like they’re gonna make it afterall! I’m sure some people want concrete support, but most of the time when people are talking about a new initiative, they just want to spit out the content and talk about jitters and plans (or lack thereof.) There’s a way of saying “it’ll come together” without being responsible for helping them get it together. Sayings like, “It sounds like you need a business plan!” or “It sounds like you need a lot more support than I’m able to give”, or “You know, I was in your position too when we started out, and I can’t really point to one particular set of variables that prepared me/the organization for success. Everything comes down to small decisions.” Just some pointers for being somewhat vague and then pointing them to a resource (“I really liked X Book or X website when I was/am struggling…” makes sense.

  9. Realistic*

    I often said no without saying no — “Can you tell me the steps you’ve already taken (to learn this?). I don’t want to waste time with duplicate material and efforts. If you can send me a summary of what (problem-solving) you’ve already reviewed, that will help me to focus on helping you get to the next level.” Most of the time — :::crickets:::

    1. Artemesia*

      I used to use techniques like this with grad students. I had a rule that I would not discuss a dissertation topic until I received a one page note that identified the question they were interested in, why anyone should care about the answer to this question and what preliminary ideas they had for researching it. Obvious stuff, no? But a surprisingly large number of people will suck up hours of your time without putting in any effort first.

      I used this in situations where people wanted consultation for free as well — tell me what you have done and how it worked and what other approaches you have tried.

      Never do more work than the person is willing to do who is asking for the help.

  10. Chelsey*

    I ran into this when I started my business, and found Marie Forleo right about that time. She has a few great ways to respond to this. Here’s the link to her suggestions, in an entrepreneurial context:

    1. Mel*

      I discovered this as well recently! And on this same note, I often wish Alison had video or podcast sessions as well so that I could hear the tone of some of the language she suggests as it’s executed. Her advise is always spot on and I love all of her language examples but I don’t always know how they would sound spoken in person. ;)

        1. Mel*

          I would be a regular listener! It would be so, so very helpful! I know in the AMA or somewhere, you and others were joking about a potential podcast. I’d be all over that!

        2. Rehabilitating Mr Wiggles*

          SoundCloud might be worth investigating. An occasional podcast might be fun, too.

          (This is just my opinion, but I think that some people think that anyone making a living on the Internet should start with text, move to audio / podcasts, and eventually to video. I disagree, especially re video).

  11. Rehabilitating Mr Wiggles*

    Reggie: “Uh hi. Uh Satan, umm … do you have a second?”

    Satan: “Actually i was just leaving …”

    Reggie: “No, I know, it’s just – I’m a – I’m a long time minion, I mean: huge fan. Ya know, I umm I do comedy …”

    Satan (disinterested): “Oh that’s great.”

    Reggie: “… and I want to be like a REALLY successful stand-up, and I was just wondering: is there any way you could help me with that? I mean, you know if I sold my soul or whatever or something like that?”

    Satan: “Yeah, sure, we could arrange something.”

    Reggie: “Great! Now okay, so how – how do we do this?

    Satan (pulls out smartphone, shows Reggie): “You go on this website right here and download the PDF.”

    Reggie: “Oh. Okay … great!”

    Satan: “Yeah, we’re online now.”

    Reggie: “…. and pledging my soul to you?”

    Satan (leaving): “It’s all on the site.”

  12. Elizabeth West*

    On the other side of it, try to be as professional as possible if you’re going to ask someone for this. As a veteran brain-picker for book stuff, I try to adhere to the following guidelines:

    –Introduce yourself and explain why you want to pick their brain. (I find a lot of people are eager to help if I tell them I’m researching a book.) It establishes that you are 1) professional and have an actual reason for your request, and 2) that you understand people want to know who they’re dealing with and why. Law enforcement especially is weird about requests for information. Don’t be surprised if they put you off long enough to check you out a little.

    –Ask politely if you can schedule a time to talk to the person about X (be specific). If they say no, thank them graciously and move on.

    –If they say yes, try to do it on their timetable if you can.

    –Narrow down your questions. Ideally, you should have already done as much research as you could; you’re asking the person to fill in the gaps. So don’t bother them with stuff you could have found online, in books, etc.
    Case in point: I’ve been researching 1960s London for Secret Book; it’s easy enough to find political and societal data of the time, but less easy to get details like smells, sounds, etc. I asked the commenters on a page I follow and one very nice older gentleman agreed to answer my questions. I emailed them to him and got a LOAD of great information. Plus now we’re Facebook friends, and I hope next time I go we can meet up and have a pint (couldn’t manage it last time). :) Same with the bank robber book–I did everything I could before I approached the FBI with questions I couldn’t answer anywhere else.

    –Show up with everything you need. You may only get one shot at interviewing the person. If you need to take pictures, bring a camera. Notes, bring a notebook, etc. Bring a list of your questions too, so you can stay on track and not forget! Sometimes conversations go way off topic, especially if you’re trying to establish rapport.

    –Make it as comfortable to meet with you as possible. If you can’t take notes easily and you want to record, Ann Hoffman in her book Research for Writers recommends talking a bit first before broaching it as, “Hey, this is great; you mind if I turn on the recorder so I don’t miss any of it?” People can be weird about that. If you plan to record, rehearse with your equipment beforehand to save time and eliminate awkward moments.

    –Make sure you get permission, preferably in writing, to use their name for a paper, article, acknowledgment, etc.. If it’s for a book, it’s fine to give them a copy if they want one, but you might tell them publication is not guaranteed (unless you have a book contract, and if you do, I hate you). If you do publish it, follow through and send them one!! Or send them a link to the article, etc. so they can read it and share it. Some people like to tell friends/family–“Hey, look at this! I was the expert!”

    –It helps if you can buy them lunch, a coffee, whatever, if you’re meeting outside a workplace setting. If you’re skint, it’s fine to do something cheap. I don’t recommend drinks because neither of you would be able to focus properly.

    –If it’s someone you don’t know, meet in public, for safety’s sake. And don’t go anywhere with them afterward. There is no information worth a surprise from Patrick Bateman.

    –DON’T FORGET TO SAY THANK YOU! Even better, follow up with an email or note thanking them for their time.

  13. Stitch*

    Scott H Young had a post about how to find a mentor –

    It has a good point about how, before you try to ask for help from someone experienced, you’d better be damn sure you’ve exhausted all public resources and investing a lot of your own time into the matter. People are much more willing to help you out when you’ve done so much on your own, and could do so much more with a little help.

    Similarly, I think in this position you shouldn’t be afraid to turn down those who seem less than serious about it. Those who haven’t already put their own time into this are not necessarily worth yours.

  14. Caffeinated*

    As a freelancer who is trying to switch into a new but related career field, I’ve seen sending out a few targeted emails to alumni to pick their brain on how to make the transition. So far I’ve received zero responses. Not going to lie, it’s disheartening. Particularly because I see myself as always being willing to help others and have in the past gone out of my way to introduce acquaintances and answer questions from strangers.

    BUT I do understand that people are busy and in no way obligated to help me, a stranger. So don’t feel bad! A FAQ sounds like a great idea if you get the same questions over and over and I really like the response Come On Eileen cited up thread.

  15. Jem*

    Arrgh the phrase “pick your brain” creeps me out so much. It’s one of the worst corporate-speak offenders. What’s wrong with “I was wondering if you could advise me?” or “I’d like to get your perspective on X”?

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