Asking to 'pick someone's brain' won't get you anywhere -- here's what to say instead

Asking for career advice is generally a good thing to do. It can make you look smarter; it helps you earn your boss’ support; it prevents you from making the same dumb mistakes everyone in your industry makes.

That said, it’s pretty easy to botch the ask.

In a video on her Science of People blog, behavioural investigator Vanessa Van Edwards breaks down exactly how to solicit advice from someone knowledgeable and experienced. Here are her top tips:

  • Be specific to them. For example, you might say to your boss, “You have been in this industry for 15 years. I would love your expert advice on something I’ve been struggling with.” In other words, you’re showing the person that you value their unique input.
  • Ask something specific. “Do not ask to pick someone’s brain,” Van Edwards says. Same goes for requesting “really general advice,” and for coming to the meeting with no “real question.” Here’s a good example: “I would love your advice on the best résumé experience I could have for an entry-level position in [your industry].”
  • Be specifically grateful. In your follow-up or thank-you note, explain exactly how you’re going to use the person’s feedback. And if it helps you at all, tell them. “If you can use the advice and then let them know it succeeded, you will give them a sense of accomplishment along with your accomplishment,” Van Edwards says.

Bottom line: Even though the expert is giving you advice, the relationship can still be mutually beneficial.

You get the help you need in your career; the expert feels flattered and useful. If the only thing you’re giving the expert is a free coffee, you’re doing something wrong.

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