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.

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