How to (Politely) Decline When Someone Asks to ‘Pick Your Brain’

Dear Heidi,
I work in publishing and (I say this in danger of tooting my own horn) in the last year I've done really well for myself. As people in my network start to take notice, I've been getting a lot of invites to "grab coffee," which I've come to learn is code for "pick your brain." Now, don't get me wrong, I love chatting with other creatives and bouncing ideas back and forth. However, when acquaintances I haven't talked to in years ask me to grab lunch or coffee out of the blue, I hesitate. I don't want to be rude but at the same time, I don't like the idea of having my brain picked while I eat my tuna salad. How do I say no without coming off as a schmuck?
-- Not a schmuck


Hello Schmuckless Darling,
I'll confess that I cringe every time I hear the phrase "pick your brain." The entire notion of seeking expertise under the guise of a Starbucks latte is much too contrived for my liking. However, I understand your guilt at turning someone away when at some point in your career, you most likely sought (and maybe still seek) similar advice from those you admire.

If it helps, you're not alone. Many experts in their fields have even started charging for these so-called "lunches" at a cost that's much more than your tuna salad.

“I offer free advice, when appropriate, but I feel it should be my call, not theirs,” says Steve Cony, president of Communications Counselors, tells NYP. “When someone asks to pick my brain, I bristle. My brain is how I earn my living — would you ask a plumber to unclog a drain for free?”

So, the next time you encounter an unsolicited brain picker, politely tell them that "I'd love to, but unless it's for a consultation, I'm afraid I'll have to pass. My rate is ___, if you're interested and if so, we can figure out a time that works for both of us." Don't know how much to charge? There's an app for that.

Of course, make sure you make time -- free of charge -- for old friends, those you want to curry favor from later and your most die-hard fans.  And even for these pro-bono sessions try to go by these 3 rules.

  • You meet at a location convenient to you.

  • You meet a a time (and duration) convenient to you.

  • All you need to do is show-up and share your expertise.

If you have to do any kind of research/study, or really rack your brain to come up with solutions to help, forget it.

By the way, a tuna salad is too messy to eat in public. I'd suggest some portobello mushroom fries.

Photo by ICON



  • Sophie says:

    Wow, I could very well relate with this predicament. There were times too, when I get invited by peers whom I haven’t seen in a long time and when we catch up, it’s neither because they miss me or want to reconnect, but because they need my opinion and suggestions and ideas for their own benefit. so finding this article of yours has been a relief because now I know what to do with them. Thank you so much!

  • Angelique says:

    What, there’s an app for calculating how much to charge for services? That is soooo cool! Thanks for sharing 🙂 Happy New Year!

  • Wena says:

    You got me with that tuna salad.. It happens, it’s one of my favorite snacks, but yeah it’s quite messy though. I’ll take note of that when I decide to meet up with people who want to “pick my brain”. Thanks for all the tips, Heidi 🙂

  • Jenni Clark says:

    If I may, I’d like to say that I can feel what Miss Not A Schmuck was feeling when she had to meet with other colleagues to pick her brain. I also felt that way before when people I barely knew suddenly came up to me, inviting me for a quick cuppa joe and soon I realized they just wanted to steal my ideas and present it as their own. Though resigning isn’t really a suggested option, I found myself doing that when a better opportunity came along.

  • Vanessa Ryan says:

    I love your three rules when meeting for a brainstorming. Highly effective and appropriate when we have no choice but to be of help to others, even if the real purpose is to “pick one’s brain”. I’m thinking of charging my services, too, now that you mention it.

  • Patricia says:

    I see your point, charging others for your service is a good idea specially when that ideas or suggestions you shared would result to highly positive outcome.

  • Patricia says:

    I guess I wouldn’t mind bonding with my colleagues and sharing what I know, as long as we’re both working on the same company. If the other person who asks to pick my brain would be from another company, whether from a competition or not, I’ll follow your advice, I’ll start charging them too.

  • Ashley says:

    Hello Schmuckless Lady,

    I think Heidi’s suggestion is a great one, why not charge them for “picking your brain”… that way, you’ll earn while they learn. It’s a give and take and there’s nothing to lose. I’ll do the same thing too.

    Yours Truly,


  • Leigh says:

    Thumbs up to your 3 rules when meeting with would-be brain pickers! I like it, meeting at a location and time convenient to me is preferred when I know that I would be doing some excessive thinking as a result. Thanks for sharing this, Heidi, and happy new year!

  • KC says:

    You made me think about my constant meetings outside of work. This is really helpful, thank you.

  • Pamela says:

    I think there’s nothing wrong going out with long-time-no-see old acquaintances if their mere purpose is to catch up and have fun. How do you know when they just want to pick your brain? If it were me, I may not be able to guess at all. Maybe I’m just too trusting with the people around me. So I guess I should take heed and learn to say NO sometimes, too. Thanks for this, Heidi.

  • Tanya says:

    What a great idea! I think I can relate with you, Not a Schmuck.. sometimes I think people just come up to me and offer to grab a bite when they really wanted to pick ideas from my brain. Thanks for sharing this.

  • Desiree Lynch says:

    Oh, there’s an app now for computing how much to charge for services.. that’s new.. Thanks for sharing it, I’m sure this will help me too!

  • mistydew says:

    Actually, I don’t mind getting my brain picked. I’d rather call it brainstorming with pals. But if it does happen more often than I can imagine, and with people whom I hardly had contact before, I guess I’ll have second thoughts, too.

  • Gabrielle says:

    Oh I can tell exactly what you mean.. There’s a lot of opportunists out there who’d do anything to pick your brain especially when you’re known to be the brilliant and creative one. But if these are people you trust and you wouldn’t mind sharing what you know, I agree with Heidi, there’s nothing wrong in getting paid to doing it.

  • Bev says:

    Hmm, this got me thinking.. maybe my other co-workers were picking on my brains all those times that they include me on their early morning sessions.. Hmm.

  • Love this, Heidi! Especially on your advice on what to say when an unsolicited person asks….

    This is one of the exact reasons I got certified and became a coach working with creatives! I’ve worked in the entertainment field for over a decade, shot up the ladder pretty fast and was always being “asked for coffee” to find out how I did it or to give advice on projects. After a while, I felt like it was overwhelming. I LOVE networking and helping people but it was taking up a good portion of my free time. So I made it a side business.

    Dominique Anders
    Creative Business and Lifestyle Coach
    Entertainment Producer | Director

  • Liz Cloods says:

    This is worth reading. I’ve been so many times invited to tea and coffee, only to be prodded with suggestions and questions, when they initially told me that we were just going out for a sip. Ahhh, life!

  • Irene L. says:

    I am not a consultant or an adviser per se, but if someone asks me questions or barrages me with so many concerns that I am not capable of answering, that’s where I’d draw the line.

Comments are closed.