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Discovery Questions – The Right Questions
Empower Your Team

by Cynder Niemela


During my career, I have participated in hundreds of group coaching sessions, staff meetings, board meetings, sales calls, job interviews and performance appraisals. I've noticed that the most successful leaders invariably ask the best questions. Their style of inquiry brings out the best in their team. How would I characterize this style? First of all, it is non-judgmental. The goal is not to correct, but to evoke clearer thinking and new solutions. Rarely is the word "Why" ever used.

A gifted coach or team leader would never ask, “Why did you do it that way?” Instead, they would ask "What" and "How" questions:

  • What caused the problem?

  • What were the steps that led to your present difficulties?

And afterwards,

  • How have you seen others accomplish that?

  • How can you change your approach to arrive at a better outcome?

These are what I call "Discovery questions." Discovery questions honor the individual. They support people in revealing for themselves the information they need to be successful. A powerful question evokes clarity, action, discovery, insight and commitment. It creates greater possibility, new learning or clearer vision.

Discovery questions are open-ended questions for which you do not have the answer. If you are asking a leading question (meaning you have an answer) you may be perceived as testing the individual, and your attitude may be seen as condescending. Condescension puts people on the defensive, blocking their goodwill and their ability to move forward into a clearer, more creative approach to their situation.

Open-ended questions begin with words like Who, What, When, How Much, How many:

  • What's missing from this plan?

  • Who else needs to be involved?

  • What resources will you need to hit this target?

  • What do you want to learn while working on this team?

Always watch out for the "Why" word, which comes loaded with implied condemnation and condescension. How can you stay in your natural curious state and ask questions that come from your genuine trust of others?

  • Stay in the present and focus on the person, not the results.

  • Ensure that you are not attached to an outcome.

  • Risk being wrong.

  • Give the gift of silence to allow someone to find his or her own true answer.

  • Be interested in how the team member is experiencing the situation -- not just in details about how much is or isn't being accomplished.

Truly great coaches and team leaders nurture their teams, asking questions that bring out the natural genius in everyone around them.


The Author

Leading High Impact Teams

Cynder Niemela coaches executives and business teams to Peak Performance. Her book, Leading High Impact Teams: The Coach Approach to Peak Performance was voted one of the Best Business Books for 2001 by The CEO Refresher.

For additional information email: or visit .

Many more articles in Coaching and High Perfomance Teams in The CEO Refresher Archives
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Copyright 2002 by Cynder Niemela. All rights reserved.

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