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Stop asking, 'Can I pick your brain?' Harvard researchers say this is how successful people ask for advice

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"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:

  1. 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?"
  2. 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?"
  3. 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?"
  4. 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

Several field studies have discovered that advice seekers are more likely to ask for guidance from people they feel comfortable with, like a close friend or family member.

"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.

This 25-year-old learned a tough business lesson from Warren Buffett
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Don't ask everyone

Things can backfire quickly if you run around asking a bunch of people for advice. Clearly, you won't be able to follow everyone's advice.

"Research shows that those whose advice you don't take may have a worse view of you afterward. They may even see you as less competent or avoid you," according to Hayley Blunden, a PhD student at Harvard Business School and co-author of the 2018 study, "The Interpersonal Costs of Ignoring Advice."

For example, a marketing executive who is widely respected is pleased when you ask her what to do about a particular situation, but is then less pleased when she finds out you didn't do it.

Remember, you're not running a Gallup poll (but if you really are, then just say so).

Don't assume you already know the answers

Garvin and Margolis pointed out that people often have a hard time "assessing their own competence and place too much faith in their intuition."

As a result, they end up asking for advice simply to gain validation or praise. Those who have a tendency to do this often believe they've already solved the problem, but just want confirmation or recognition from their bosses or peers.

"It's a dangerous game to play because they risk alienating their advisers when it becomes evident — and it will — that they're requesting guidance just for show or to avoid additional work," the professors noted.

Be grateful

It should go without saying, but based on my experience, I still feel the need to emphasize it: Be grateful.

Thank your advisor for their time at the conclusion of your meeting. It doesn't hurt to thank them again the next day via email. Follow up later to let them know how their feedback helped you. If they sent you an article or book, let them know how it you benefited from it.

Showing that you're humble and appreciative will go a long way in maintaining good relationships with those in your professional network.

Gary Burnison is the CEO of Korn Ferry, a global consulting firm that helps companies select and hire the best talent. His latest book, a New York Times best-seller, "Lose the Resume, Land the Job," shares the kind of straight talk that no one — not even your partner or close friends — will tell you. Follow him on LinkedIn here.

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