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Home | Got a Minute | Difficult colleagues | No. 28 – How do I say no when peers ask to ‘pick my brain’?

No. 28 – How do I say no when peers ask to ‘pick my brain’?

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8 September 2021

Each week, Dr Kirstin Ferguson tackles questions on the workplace, career and leadership in her advice column “Got a minute?” This week, dishing out free advice, worries about weight, and colleagues communicating in different languages.

I am constantly being asked for advice on my area of expertise. What might start as a small, simple question often ends up turning into more complex requests and all are expected to be answered without any remuneration for my time. How do I look out for this and say no to the request, unless the person is prepared to pay me?

Saying no is so hard but feels so good when you find a way. I know exactly what you are talking about with your question, and I experience it from time to time as well. There may be an initial question that is harmless enough, but before you even realise it, “scope creep” kicks in and they want a full-page email response on an issue. I reckon lawyers have this problem sorted out – they start charging from the first six minutes!

The only suggestion I have is to answer the first question if it actually is simple and quick – that is a great way to maintain a working relationship with the person and it is usually quick enough to do.

However, if they come back looking for more it is a matter of saying something like, “It sounds like there are quite a few issues here to work through. Why don’t I send through a quick consulting agreement so we can look at all the issues and make sure we get this problem sorted for you?” You will soon know whether they are serious about wanting your advice or whether they just took for granted you would give them your expertise for free.

This is really difficult to ask. I have put on a fair bit of weight during COVID-19 while we have been working from home. Whenever anyone talks about working in the office again I get really stressed since I am embarrassed to see my work colleagues. Fortunately in all our Zoom calls my weight gain is not as obvious. I don’t have confidence that I can lose all this weight and I don’t know how to face my workmates. Just wondering how you think I am best to handle this?

I think we are all feeling this way and there is a good chance some of your work colleagues are feeling it too. We know “quarantine kilos” are definitely a thing. We are still going through a global pandemic. It’s a big deal. Some people have coped with that stress by becoming even more focused on exercise. Not me. I found comfort in elasticised waistbands, baking and Netflix.

In terms of how to handle seeing your workmates again, if that even happens again this year, just remember that your colleagues respect and love working with you because of the person you are, the skills you bring and the way you help them in their roles. They have been working with you all through COVID-19, they have seen you inside your home and they have probably seen your pets and kids and deliveries too.

They will continue to feel this way about you when they see you again. You have given us all a reminder to be kind to ourselves and to others. It’s been a tough time and continues to be for so many.

I work in a team that has a few team members who speak languages other than English, including my supervisor. Sometimes in meetings, especially if things get testy, a couple of team members will start speaking in a different language and my supervisor will often join in. This can often happen for a few minutes at a time and the rest of us are left watching and wondering what to do. What do you recommend?

I can imagine how difficult that must be and it is disappointing your supervisor is allowing some team members to be actively excluded during meetings. That is the last thing needed to create an inclusive, unified team.

Your supervisor may not fully understand how you are feeling but hopefully a quick chat will mean they will be aware of the issue in future and jump on it.

I would speak with your supervisor about your concerns and ask if they can make it clear that team meetings are for everyone. That may mean clarifying the agreed language for the meetings. It may also be worth checking that everyone in the team is comfortable with speaking English – it could be that some team members have limited English so this will be another issue to work through to ensure everyone, whether English is a first language or not, feels included.

Send your questions about work, careers and leadership to Your name and any identifying information will not be used. Letters may be edited.

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