“Can I pick your brain?”
Five words that make up the most thoughtless, irritating and generic way to ask for advice — and any person who is a rock star in their industry has heard it more than a dozen times.
The phrase, while well-intentioned, is overused, vague and way too open-ended. When conversations start this way, there’s no telling where it’ll go or how long it’ll take.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m all for giving — and receiving — advice. Offering advice is a sign of good leadership, and asking for advice is a sign of intelligence. If the exchange goes well, both parties benefit.
“The whole interaction is a subtle and intricate art. It requires emotional intelligence, self-awareness, restraint, diplomacy and patience,” Harvard Business School professors Joshua D. Margolis and David A. Garvin wrote in a 2015 Harvard Business Review article.
But the process can derail in many ways. It can quickly lead to “frustration, decision gridlock, subpar solutions, frayed relationships and thwarted personal development,” according to Margolis and Garvin.
To avoid those consequences, here’s some guidance on how to ask for advice without annoying the other person:
Start with a positive tone
The way you initiate the conversation is everything. Instead of starting with, “Can I pick your brain,” shift the language to a more positive tone.
When in doubt, I recommend: “I’d love your advice.” No-frills, friendly and simple.
Identify the type of advice you’re seeking
Immediately after your opening line, address the topic of your problem in the form a question.
In order to craft a question with great precision, ask yourself: What type of advice am I seeking? What does my problem involve? What are my desired outcomes?
Below are the four general types of advice, according to Garvin and Margolis’ research:
Type of advice: Discrete
What it involves: Exploring options for a single decision
Desired outcomes: Recommendations in favor of or against specific options
Example question: “Where should we build the new factory — in China, Brazil or Eastern Europe?”
Type of advice: Counsel
What it involves: Providing guidance on how to approach a complex or unfamiliar situation
Desired outcomes: A framework or process for navigating the situation
Example question: “How should I handle my domineering supervisor?”
Type of advice: Coaching
What it involves: Enhancing skills, self-awareness and self-management
Desired outcomes: Task proficiency; personal and professional development
Example question: “How can I work more collaboratively with my peers?”
Type of advice: Mentoring
What it involves: Providing opportunities, guidance and protection to aid career success
Desire outcomes: A relationship dedicated to building and sustaining professional and personal effectiveness and to career advancement
Example question: “How can I get more exposure for my project?”
Just the other day, someone approached me for guidance, and her execution was perfect: “I’d love your advice. My company is asking me to relocate. There are several factors to consider and I’m not sure if I should do it. Do you have 45 minutes to chat?”
Forty-five minutes is a lot, I know, but I appreciated the fact that she acknowledged it would be a longer conversation. I happily blocked off some time on my calendar and we ended up talking for an hour.
Come prepared with specific details
As you move further into the conversation, it’s important to clearly define the problem. Otherwise, you’re doing what I like to call a “bait-and-switch.”
(This is another reason why you should never ask to pick someone’s brain; it makes the other person assume that the exchange will only take a few minutes. But more often than not, it ends up being a deep dive.)
According to Margolis and Garvin, when you don’t come prepared with specific details about your problem, you’re more likely to end up “telling a lengthy, blow-by-blow story” that might cause the advice giver to tune out, lose focus or misidentify the core problem that needs solving.
Simply put, don’t come into the conversation empty-handed. Put realistic guardrails on the conversation and include any essential background information that your advisor might not be familiar with. Providing specific details also keeps the conversation pleasant and interesting.
Ask the right person
“Though friendship, accessibility and non-threatening personalities all impart high levels of comfort and trust, they might have no relation to the quality or thoughtfulness of the advice,” Margolis and Garvin wrote. This is especially true if you’re seeking career-related advice.
Think creatively about the expertise you need. Who will bring in the most valuable insight? Who has the most knowledge that’s relevant to your problem?
For example, if you’re asking a seasoned CEO for advice involving your personal life, don’t expect to have lunch with Yoda. Your advisor is offering up valuable time to listen and provide professional feedback, not to hear you vent for an hour.