The Fishbowl techniques is a way of enabling a large group to all contribute to a single conversation. This is done by arranging the room so that the speakers asked to start the conversation are seated in the centre of the room ‘in the fishbowl’, with the other participants seated around them in a circle to listen to their conversation.
The room set up is an important feature of a Fishbowl conversation.
Four to eight chairs are set up as an inner circle - this is the fishbowl. The people selected to start the conversation are seated here, along with a facilitator. Depending on how the Fishbowl is planned there may be a few chairs left empty here from the start.
The remaining chairs are arranged in concentric circles. The rest of the group begin the session seated on these chairs outside the fishbowl.
Usually the facilitator will open the discussion by posing a question to the people in the fishbowl to trigger an open conversation. In some case however the participants, particularly if they have been invited as ‘experts’, might each give a short presentation on the discussion topic before moving into a more free-flowing conversation.
The idea is that, once the conversation has started, any member of the audience can come and join the fishbowl, either by taking an empty chair or replacing somebody already seated in the circle (who then finds a free chair in the audience). The discussion then continues with participants frequently entering and leaving the fishbowl. This should allow as many participants who want to to spend some time in the fishbowl and take part in the discussion.
When time runs out, the fishbowl is closed and the facilitator summarises the discussion.
Fishbowl conversations can be used to share information and promote dialogue between participants by focusing the entire groups’ attention on the discussions taking place between a small, rotating group. They are increasingly being used in conferences, workshops and town hall-type meetings as an alternative to traditional presentations by experts or Q&A sessions.
This techniques is best for 20 – 50 participants, with 3-6 chosen to begin the conversation.
Approximate time expense
Each Fishbowl would usually run for 1-2 hours.
- Fishbowls are a versatile method that can be adapted easily
- They are a good method for discussing controversial issues where there may be a number of different and strongly held views.
- They educes the distinction between ‘invited speakers’ and the audience.
- They can be an engaging alternative to PowerPoint presentations or panel discussions, as it can give ‘expert’ participants a platform to share their views while still maintaining opportunities for interaction.
- They promote active listening as each member of the audience has the potential to become a participant in the discussion
- The success of this method can be quite dependent on the facilitator ensuring that individuals, either those beginning in the fishbowl or joining the discussion, do not dominate the conversation or take it ‘off track’.
- This is not a type of discussion which introverted or shy people are likely to contribute to
- Fishbowls are not likely to reach consensus but are best used for building dialogue between participants.
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