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Pick good produce, not my brain

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Photo of tomatoes, cucumbers and carrots

There is one phrase we hear as DEI consultants that makes us take a deep breath and sigh……“Hey, I’d love to pick your brain about….”  If done well, it can be a wonderful exchange of information and a way of everyone learning something new. Yet, more likely than not, it’s a way to get free work and leaves the recipient of the request drained and a bit more guarded in the future. 

Let’s talk about why “picking someone’s brain” is problematic, what you should do if you want to get information from an expert and what to do if someone asks you for a “bit of information”. 

What are you REALLY asking for? 

It comes down to why you are asking for information. Most often, the person asking knows that the expert has information that is of value and within that ask there is the expectation of an unequal transfer of power. I  am giving you something as the expert and you are giving me nothing in return (a chirpy “thank you” doesn’t count as an equal exchange). This can range from questions like “Hey, I saw this talk/article/blog…what do you think about it?” all the way up to “Oh, you’re a DEI consultant…How do I build a more inclusive team/hire minorities/be less racist?” We’ve become a walking, talking, hyper personalized search engine. 

This transfer of power also impacts marginalized groups – people of color, members of the LGBTQ+ community and women more directly and more harshly. Here, the expectation becomes more pressing and a feeling of “teach me” is added to the mix and if the offer isn’t gladly and gleefully accepted, the expert is seen as mean, selfish and even uppity. Instead of reconsidering why you are asking for the information and if there are other ways for you to engage with the topic, the asker has hurt feelings that the expert did not “help”. 

There is one way to reduce the tension in this type of ask – make the transfer of power equal. You may be asking “how do I do that?” Simple. Pay for information – especially information that is more difficult to seek out or that may be specialized. Providing monetary compensation (or a trade that is agreed upon by both parties) is how you level out the balance and show that you value the information and the person sharing.

What happens if the person you ask says “no”? Don’t get offended or get huffy. Accept the no and move on to another way of getting the information. You are not entitled to a yes because you asked. 

Note: this unequal transfer is not limited to asks from the dominant group. Intra-marginalized requests can also display unequal power. An example of this is a White woman asking a Woman of Color how to approach a topic without attribution or compensation. Because you  both may be marginalized does not mean you have a free pass. (Yes, I am talking about intersectionality here.)

So, how do I ask?

I want to be very clear. You can ask for information from an expert, just be sure to offer compensation. Here’s a few tips to do so in an equitable way: 

  • Before you ask a question, do your basic research. Google it, see what others are saying and go past the first page. If that doesn’t give you the answer you are looking for, THEN look to ask an expert. Since you’ve done your research, the questions you ask will be more targeted and it’ll be a better use of your time and of theirs.
  • Tell the expert,  “I know your time is valuable. What is your rate for consultations?” You will be SHOCKED to see how the conversation changes once you respect the time and effort of the expert. There is even a possibility that the askee will give you a discounted rate or offer advice for free because you have demonstrated you understand the value.
  • If you can’t afford that rate, BE HONEST and say “that’s a bit out of my budget right now, would you be interested in bartering some of your time?” This way, you acknowledge that the information you are seeking is valuable and that you have something to offer.

What do I do if someone asks to “pick my brain”?

You get to pick and choose what requests you want to respond to and you don’t have to feel guilty no matter your answer. Here are some options:

  • “I don’t have the bandwidth to do free consults right now, but here are some resources you can use….”
  • “That sounds GREAT! My rate is $___ for consults. Let’s look for a time that works well for you.”
  • “I’d be happy to talk with you about ____. Would you be willing to do ____ as a barter?”

Reaching out to experts is a fantastic way to get information and to clarify thoughts you may have about DEI. But, make sure that you are coming with an equal offer or compensation so that the transfer of power stays the same. 

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