Etiquette (2)

I’ve received this question from more than one person, and have seen many articles written on the matter over the years. There are a lot of ways to deal with this, and I’ll link to some posts that have resonated with me. What do you do?

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#smetiquette of brain-picking

Dear Amy:

What do you do when people you don’t really know well ask to have coffee with you sometime and pick your brain? Or just have coffee? What if that person is someone of the opposite sex? Awkward?

Perplexed in Picking


Dear Amy:

How do you respond to well-intentioned people who don’t realize that “picking your brain” means working for free, and that you don’t do that?

I’m specifying “well-intentioned” because the group of people who are aware of how much they suck when they ask this that I’d have no problem giving them my knowledge for free if I can have their laptop, car or something else they’ve worked hard to attain for free in return.

And I don’t have a problem with people who know me offering to buy me lunch to bounce ideas off me. However, there are sometimes acquaintances, friends of relatives or old friends who believe that just because I’ve attained a small measure of success, I’m *supposed* to help them for free. I’d like to be able to explain the situation without completely alienating them, or caving to their requests. It’s harder when you know the person is operating from a place of ignorance rather than stupidity.


Dear Perplexed (and Tinu):

I understand the difficulty with this – it starts out innocently. Someone asks to have coffee with you to pick your brain. You’re flattered – someone wants your advice and thinks your brain is worth pillaging. Awesome!

It happens more and more and then one day you find your schedule littered with coffee dates and you can barely sleep anymore, you’re so caffeinated. Plus, you have trouble getting your own work done anymore, because if you’re not having coffee with someone, you’re on your way to or from having coffee with this person or are scheduling coffee with someone.

OK, that’s a bit hyperbolic. But it can happen. I recall one week where I suddenly realized I had to reign it in or risk not having time to get done what I actually needed to get done.

Then my friend Kelly Hoey posted a link to an article on Forbes, “No, you can’t pick my brain – it costs too much“. A light bulb went off.

There’s a difference between helping someone out and saying yes to every coffee request that comes along. This is how I deal with it when the question arises:

First, I always try to figure out what, exactly, this person is looking for. Generally “picking my brain” doesn’t say anything. It might not be worthwhile at all for this person to pick my brain. I may not have anything to offer. There have been circumstances where I’ve been able to direct the person to someone far more useful than I was, thereby not wasting my time, or hers.

Then, who is this person? Is this a college student? A recent graduate? A friend of a close friend? A friend who’s really stuck? In these cases, I will virtually always say yes. When we were starting out, we all needed people to share knowledge with us so we could learn. We sort of chose our own mentors – those are always the best kind of mentors, too. And if this person is a true friend? You always help a friend.

It gets a bit trickier when these are repeat requests or if you don’t really know this person. In those situations, we usually have a common acquaintance or have met somewhere at least once, whether virtually or at a conference. This is where the problems usually come in. As Tinu noted, they sometimes feel you’re supposed to help them for free. Be honest about your schedule. Set a specific time you’re willing to set aside for coffee meetings each month. Don’t take them outside of this time.

I use a scheduling app – ScheduleOnce, for example – so that all meetings are done on my schedule, when it’s convenient for me. It’s not perfect, as it doesn’t differentiate between in-person and virtual meetings, but it’s a start. And if you use it only for coffee meetings, you can really keep a good handle on things.

But your time is valuable. If you’re a consultant or work for yourself, your time is – quite literally – money. You can consider some of this time as pro bono work, but you might want to consider who it is who’s asking for your time. Is this someone who needs pro bono work or is he simply trying to get something for nothing? It’s not too hard, most of the time, to suss that out.

As for people of the opposite gender, I’ve never felt uncomfortable with accepting a coffee meeting. Drinks are something different, and a daytime meeting is preferable to a nighttime meeting – simply because it’s far less likely that either person will misunderstand the other’s intentions.

The bottom line is, you shouldn’t feel guilty saying no to a coffee meeting. Perhaps offer to chat on the phone instead, or refer this person to someone else. If it’s clear this person is trying to get a full-fledged strategy or business plan from  you and just doesn’t want to pay, you should have no qualms quoting your rates.

Your time is yours. Your time is valuable. Don’t be guilted into not valuing it, just balance that with helping those who are on their way up. That was the basic idea behind a post I read on LinkedIn, “Why I Say NO to Coffee Meetings” – though the post itself was met with an avalanche of criticism from people who felt the author was saying you should never take meetings like this. That’s not what she was saying at all.

All she was saying was: Value your time.

If you don’t, who will?

PS: This is an excellent post from AGBeat, on “Why ‘let’s do coffee’ is an insulting request” – offering some terrific alternatives to asking someone to meet for coffee.


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