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Skillful questioning and active listening

Skilful questioning is really the key to successful appraisal discussions. But what does skilful questioning look like? Well, the funnel technique gives us a useful visual reference for thinking about questioning skills.


Listen funnel


At the mouth of the funnel we begin with an ‘open’ question. This question is intended to give the appraisee the widest possible scope for responding. Sometimes it may be necessary to repeat or rephrase this question to give the appraisee more thinking time and further opportunities to raise information. Working down the narrowing body of the funnel we use a series of probing questions to draw out further specific information and help complete the picture. Closed questions then have their place to draw out, check or confirm specific pieces of information, or to get the appraisee to commit on a point more precisely. This then brings us to the bottom of the funnel where we clarify, using a short summary, what we have got out of the discussion, aiming to check our understanding of the main points. The question sequence might go something like this:

  • ‘Tell me how you went about…?’ (open)
  • ‘How did you prepare?’ (open – secondary)
  • ‘What was your starting point?’ (probe)
  • ‘So, what happened next?’ (probe)
  • ‘Who else was involved?’ (probe)
  • ‘And how did they respond?’ (probe)
  • ‘What were your thoughts at that stage?’ (probe)
  • ‘What were the main outcomes?’ (probe)
  • ‘So, that took a total of six weeks?’ (closed – clarifying)
  • ‘Was it your idea or someone else’s?’ (closed – clarifying)
  • ‘And the patient made a full recovery?’ (closed – clarifying)
  • ‘So, let me see if I’ve followed you…’ (checking – summary)

Running along the side of the funnel, from top to bottom we have the word ‘listen’. There is, after all, no point asking a question if you don’t listen to the response. But for a whole host of reasons it can be very challenging to stay focused and really listen to someone, particularly in a more formal discussion such as an appraisal. For one thing, it can be tempting to think ahead to what your next question is going to be. Often the problem is that we don’t listen, instead we wait to speak. The solution to this takes the form of what is termed ‘active listening’ and we can use the acronym LISTEN to gain some useful guidance on this.


L i s t e n


Active listening is all about showing a response to what is being said. Eye contact, nodding, small facial expressions and the occasional echoing of words are all examples of active listening. And the more it looks like you’re listening, the more you will be listening. So, listening requires effort combined with a real and honest desire to understand.



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