Mentor views – How to Ask the Right Questions

“”You can’t get the right answers if you are asking the wrong questions.” – Mark Hansen

Curiosity doesn’t always kill the cat. Most of the time, it makes it smarter. Often the key to a vast treasure chest of knowledge is just the right question.  

In today’s times, when the startup ecosystem is constantly booming in India, with a large number of new entrepreneurs trying to make their ventures successful, mentorship has proven to be extremely important. But if you want to get the maximum out of the mentorship, you must learn to ask the right questions. How do you do that? We tell you!

How to Ask the Right Questions?

We interviewed and asked the right questions to two of the bigwigs in the healthcare industry, Mr Kannan Neelakanta, and Mr Y.S. Prabhakara. They have spent decades working in the industry and have amassed invaluable insights that are unparalleled. 

On talking with Mr Y.S. Prabhakara, who was worked across various continents and helped scale businesses across industries, we got some interesting insights. He said, “How can a question be smart? It has to be specific, measurable, well-timed, and realistic. Rather than just talking on the surface of something, one should sift through and start digging deeper.”

He had six-points as advice to ask the right questions:

1. Ask open-ended questions:

A close-ended question will not get you enough information; it will stop at a yes or a no. For example, instead of asking, “Do you think this product will be relevant in 2025?” ask, “What do you think will be the impact of the product in 2025?”.

2. Start macro, then go micro:

Start your question with the target at the broader picture, then delve into the details of it.

3. Ensure the question is within boundaries, not off track:

The right question will not be something that takes the conversation off track. Don’t ask, “What do you think will be the outcome of the Presidential election?” when you want to ask, “How will the elections impact the use of the product in the U.S.A?”

4. The right question should not offend anyone:

Be respectful at all times, do not make anyone uncomfortable, or put them on the spot.

5. The question should not be an attempt at 'selling':

A mentor will be put off and will not attempt to answer your question genuinely if you are trying soft-selling.

6. First listen, then ask:

A good question can only come out of a person who has actively listened to their mentor talk and advice. By active listening, you can learn to ask relevant questions.

Mr Kannan Neelakanta, who has worked closely with customers and has strong technical expertise in healthcare, also had some thought-provoking ideas about the process of asking the right questions. 

“The right question probes a product. What problem does the product or service solve?” he says and adds, “Going beyond what is available in books, journals, or other information sources is important.” A mentor’s expert eye can help an entrepreneur see their products or services in a different light, especially when it comes to what it means for the end-user. 

He too provides two valuable tips for entrepreneurs to ask the right questions:

1. Ask a question that your mentor is an expert in:

“A mentor may have a run a company before but may not be an expert in all the areas. This needs to be understood. People ask me questions about manufacturing, but my expertise lies in clinical processes,” says Mr Neelakanta.

2. If your question is support-oriented, know your shortcomings:

If you want to gain wisdom from a mentor, an entrepreneur should first know where he/she needs support. A good question comes from being fully aware of one’s own shortcomings. This also helps with clarity of thought.

Question Smartly

“Your questioning technique should be such that you are able to elicit more and more information from the mentor, without going off-topic,” explains Mr Prabhakara. With these tips, you can develop a successful questioning technique. 

Here are some additional quick tips for entrepreneurs to ask the right questions to mentors:

  • Give respect to your mentor’s experience.
  • Don’t ask rhetorical questions.
  • Be clear; don’t confuse your mentor.

Now that you are asking the right questions, you will get the answers you are looking for, making business decisions smart, easier, and quicker! More power to you!


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