Should You Let People “Pick Your Brain”?

Gene Marks

“Would you mind if I picked your brain?”

You get this question, I’m sure. You’re an attorney. Or an accountant. Or a doctor. You’re a senior manager or a business owner. You have experience. You have knowledge. And now someone wants to tap into that knowledge. For free. Do you let him?

This is how you earn your living, isn’t it? And now, just because it’s after hours and drinks are being served, this complete stranger thinks it’s OK to basically get free advice from you. He has a problem. He’s looking for help. He knows that you charge for this kind of advice. But he doesn’t seem to care. What’s a couple questions, anyway, between friends? What other reasons are there to network than to meet new people and learn new things, right?

So what do you do when this situation occurs? You can be a jerk and tell the guy that you’re more than happy to help him if he wants to call the next day to schedule an appointment. Or you can just give in and offer him the advice that he wants. You can act annoyed. Or you can be gracious. You can turn and walk away in disgust. Or you can put down your drink, ask the guy to take off his shirt, and examine that strange looking hairy mole on his back right there in the middle of the party. What’s the best move?
How about this move: you thank the person for asking and offer whatever advice you can.

You earn plenty. You have customers and clients. You’re doing fine. Yes, of course you’d like to be doing better. And yes, it’s human nature to not want to give something away for nothing. And sure, there will be some people that will take advantage of your kindness. But you’re fortunate. You are making a living. And here’s a complete stranger that is asking you for help. And you genuinely may be able to help this person. So help him. Let him pick your pick brain, because two things will come out of it.

  1. You’ll feel better about yourself because giving is always better than getting. That’s your humanitarian and benevolent side. You’re a good person. And you care about others. This is doing something nice.
  2. You’ll get your money in the end. Maybe you’ll never see that guy again. Or maybe that guy will appreciate your advice and think you are so smart that he’ll be calling you first thing the next day  to offer a million dollar contract. That probably won’t happen. But what will likely happen is that he’ll eventually walk away appreciating your help and valuing your knowledge. He will tell others. He will remember. Someone in his network of friends will have a similar hairy mole on their back and ask him for a recommendation or remember that he liked you. What comes around really does go around.

So let people pick your brain. Give your advice away for free. Don’t get defensive and don’t be annoyed. Be grateful instead. This is not a burden. It’s an opportunity to help. You’ll get your compensation someday. I guarantee it.

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33 Responses to "Should You Let People “Pick Your Brain”?"

    • Debra L. Hockett | October 9, 2017 at 5:59 pm

      Wow….How refreshing it THAT mindset? In this world, that’s a rarity! 5 GOLD STARS! It really isn’t all about the money, is it??? Could it be something larger at stake here? KUDOS!

    • Therese Hayes | October 10, 2017 at 9:23 pm

      Best article yet! Let’s pass some goodness around & Yes, let’s be GRATEFUL for all that we have. Those who share always end up way ahead. The world becomes a better place when it starts with us 🙂

    • Teresa Hagen | November 1, 2017 at 1:04 pm

      It’s always a good “feeling” to know you’ve shared valuable and helpful info.; I agree 100% and I happened upon this article just when life (and a prospect) threw me a curve!
      I COULD become selfish with my time, resources, and “value adds” but I won’t. Thank you!

    • Brian Puchalski | January 2, 2018 at 4:51 pm

      I agree if it’s in a social setting but if you’re speaking with a co-worker in a social setting or even at work, take heed. For instance, if you’re at a client site as a business consultant or technology architect you want to be helpful, if only to grease the skids of the idea engine moving a project forward. But projects often have consultants from many companies so receiving recognition is essential to survival and hopefully securing a rate increase come contract renewal. I’ve noticed what seems to have become almost epidemic that good ideas given freely are often taken credit by competitors. Unscrupulous consultants take credit for your ideas and accomplishments as their own within their chain of command. Depending on the reporting vehicle you often don’t find out until much later when saying something might seem petty. The same is true within corporations as layers of middle management increase some don’t actually contribute anything to the bottom line and survive only by reporting on others accomplishments. Such is the fate of managers where the Peter Principle is allowed.

      My rule of thumb has become that I will share openly but when someone takes 100% credit for my idea then you I don’t share with that person any longer. Or at least restrict my ideas to generalities. But I do cultivate relationships with those that give appropriate credit when sharing my ideas to build collaborative working relationships.

    • Kela Taylor | July 23, 2019 at 10:23 pm

      Great article! I am a business consultant who have been battling with this for quite some time. My skills and expertise has costed me time and money, I’d like to see a return. Yes, I overwhelmed my tribe with valuable advice and resources, I’ve yet to receive a client from it. Don’t get me wrong, I have been truly blessed in other ways, so how generous and benevolent should I be.

      I also find that the same individuals who soak up the knowledge has not applied it. In which I then feel like I’ve wasted my time. Had they booked a strategy session, they would’ve taken me and their business more seriously.

      • Hannah Stacy | July 25, 2019 at 9:01 am

        Thanks for the comment!

    • Sandor Strohmayer | July 23, 2019 at 11:34 pm

      I teach and develop training programs. Several weeks ago I had a phone conversation with a consulting group that uses my services. They asked me how I would structure a lucrative 12 week training program intonating that I would do some of the work. I spent two days developing the program. They said they reviewed it, but they were not going to use it. They implemented it.the project as I had presented it without using me.

      How do you protect yourself?

    • Angele Florisi | July 23, 2019 at 11:54 pm

      We have operated a technical repair business for more than 30 years. We’re a small mom and pop operation, and because no one really wants to pay for repair services we face this situation all the time. Our standard rule of thumb is that we are happy to answer questions or offer help if amounts to 15 minutes or less but we will not walk someone through a do-it-yourself repair — there are plenty of online resources for that. Also, there are also times when you have to tell people they have crossed a line, especially when they abuse your goodwill. Money is tight, especially in the minimum wage community we currently live and work in, and while time is money in a bill by the hour business, we gain far more in new word of mouth customers by offering our time to fix simple problems or answer a question free of charge than we get by spending gobs of funds on advertising like our competitors do. It’s why we are still in business with a good reputation when far larger companies have gone by the wayside.

      • Hannah Stacy | July 29, 2019 at 2:43 pm

        Thank you for this comment!

    • Liv Taylor-Harris | July 24, 2019 at 1:03 am

      Good article! I really do enjoy helping my colleagues when they come to me. But what I grow tired of is having to help the same ones over and over again. At some point, I do need those that I brainstorm with to figure some things out on their own. That’s why after so many brainstorm sessions (which is about 3 sessions) I invite those colleagues to subscribe to my network where a yearly subscription gives them access to me and others anytime they need help.

      • Hannah Stacy | July 25, 2019 at 9:10 am

        Thanks for this comment!

    • Kent Wiens | July 24, 2019 at 1:49 am

      I agree with this article for the most part. However my dad who has since passed away had his own heating and air conditioning business for over 40 years and was always very leery of sharing knowledge with his help for fear that they would start their own business and compete with him. And I have run into this with my business in lawn and tree care as well. One of my employees who had absolutely no knowledge or experience at all when I hired him took the knowledge I taught him and applied with a competitor for a job in addition to working for me. Thankfully he missed that interview because we were working and were delayed by a rainstorm. I would have been Furious if they would have hired him away from me because of the knowledge I gave him. And him soliciting it to a competitor.

      • Hannah Stacy | July 25, 2019 at 9:11 am

        Thanks for the feedback Kent!

    • FW SCALISE | July 24, 2019 at 3:09 am

      Past 35 years I’ve always told people that “talk is cheap”. I’ve never charged someone for chatting (in general terms) about a situation or problem.

      Now, if they want me to do research for them, give specific advice or recommendations, or come out and solve their problem… those are billable hours.

    • Nick Bertha | July 24, 2019 at 8:05 am

      As a doctor, you are legally liable for your advice.
      Yes, people are being sued over advice given at cocktail parties.
      Reality.
      This article’s advice while warm and fuzzy is wrong.

    • Tony Palmieri | July 24, 2019 at 8:49 am

      Giving can feel better than receiving especially to certain parties….but what about if the person asking you for advice works in the same line of work that you do? I’m a professional photographer…so what would you do in my shoes when another photographer says, “that’s a really cool effect. How did you do it?” Would you give it away or protect it b/c it’s proprietary and defines my style? Hmmmmm?

      • Hannah Stacy | July 25, 2019 at 9:13 am

        Great question Tony! There are multiple factors to consider.

    • Carmen Regalado | July 24, 2019 at 9:16 am

      I am an HR Manager working for an amazing commercial cleaning company and we have a few sub contractors that work for us, some of them are new and often stop in to my office to pick my brain about certain situations or even to ask for a certain form that they can use. I love love helping out wherever I can, the best feeling is being able to empower someone.

      • Hannah Stacy | July 25, 2019 at 9:13 am

        That’s great Carmen! Thanks for sharing.

    • greg | July 24, 2019 at 9:42 am

      It is the grey areas that are difficult. Offering a stranger some needed advice is no problem. What about business associates or customers that want to get this information without paying for it? As a systems integrator we have customers that want to do some
      of the work “in house” and only call when they need us. These are the tricky areas.

    • Scrimshaw Jones | July 24, 2019 at 9:51 am

      That advice may work fine for some people, but when you’re well known in your field, you have to say no…a lot. There’s just not enough time to both run your business and respond to all the requests for free consulting. I have a popular blog (~15k pageviews per day lately) and get a lot of phone calls and emails from strangers who want me to solve their problems. I give away plenty in the blog, in person, and occasionally I’ll respond to one of those emails or voicemails.

      So, sometimes it actually IS a burden, not an opportunity.

    • Leslie Mamalis | July 24, 2019 at 9:58 am

      I am always willing to help a potential customer, even if that potential is vague or slim. What frustrates me is other business people wanting to get into my profession who want my advice. These are potential competitors, and while I believe the pie is big enough to share, I get so many requests for advice that it becomes burdensome at times. If I say I’m happy to help but need to schedule something several weeks out, those folks think I’m a jerk. It’s hard to know where to draw the line.

    • Kate | July 24, 2019 at 11:06 am

      As environmental consultants, we’ve learned the hard way to be cautious about giving free advice. We thought we were being helpful, but when the person called a 3rd time we realized they were simply using us for information & cutting us out as the potential consultant for a large commercial project that was experiencing complex problems.

      It’s common for us to have several potential clients call during the week & drill us for free advice. We now answer their questions with basic information but make it clear that to give a definitive assessment of their situation we MUST first do a comprehensive, on-site investigation – and be very firm about it. We’ve even had to politely cut off the conversation, tell them “good-bye” and hang up. There’s far too much liability in this field to allow a client to play the “well, what if…” game.

      • Hannah Stacy | July 25, 2019 at 9:11 am

        Thanks for sharing Kate!

    • leslie | July 24, 2019 at 12:22 pm

      So satisfying to see this and I wholeheartedly agree! Just one note of caution. Set a limit in your mind, so you do not get too fatigued or spend too much time that it interferes with your work, or other important time.

      • Hannah Stacy | July 25, 2019 at 9:09 am

        Thanks for the response Leslie!

    • Kelly | July 24, 2019 at 12:37 pm

      I have been in business 36 years and have always tried to help when someone asks. I own a appliance service business and also sell parts over the counter. I get people everyday asking what is wrong with my refrigerator or washer? yes many times I will tell them I can’t diagnose it over the phone but this could be problem. I make the sale of parts or get them scheduled for us to come out. But many times they say they can find the part cheaper on line or I just never hear from them again. So it goes both ways, My husband when he was alive started this and I have never changed the habit but that was before you could really find stuff on internet. I have had to back off helping too much unless I feel I will make the sale. Definite pros and cons of doing it.

    • MELBA RENFRO | July 24, 2019 at 12:44 pm

      ABSOLUTELY!!!!

    • Ellie Rix | July 25, 2019 at 1:35 pm

      A very wise man once told me, “always do / be / give to the best of your ability” – you’ll never have to say, I should have … This holds true when asked to give advise, help someone, with work or family and friends. For the most part, I do my best to live by this piece of advice. It was from my dad – when I was little and he gave me a task to do that I didn’t think I could handle. I failed – dad gave me a hug for trying my best and told me the next time it would be easier. A little bit of knowledge shared goes a long way to making the world a better place. Twenty plus years and I still miss my dad every day!

      • Hannah Stacy | July 29, 2019 at 2:42 pm

        Thanks for sharing that nice story!

    • Gene Marks | July 29, 2019 at 7:08 pm

      Hi Sandor,

      Trust me – I’ve been there too. We’ve done unpaid project plans and forecasts and other things in good faith for both current and prospective clients only to have them say “thanks” and then move forward with our work on their own. To me, it’s just a cost of doing business. Sometimes people are going to be that way – if we do work with them in the future, I find a way to bake in some of the time from the past and make it back. If we never do any work I chalk it up to practice for the next paying client.

      Hope that helps.

      Sandor Strohmayer | July 23, 2019 at 11:34 pm
      I teach and develop training programs. Several weeks ago I had a phone conversation with a consulting group that uses my services. They asked me how I would structure a lucrative 12 week training program intonating that I would do some of the work. I spent two days developing the program. They said they reviewed it, but they were not going to use it. They implemented it.the project as I had presented it without using me.

      How do you protect yourself?

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