Fishbowl Discussion

Description: A small number of people sit in a circle engaged in discussion, while the rest of the group sit around them and listen.  The people in the circle can leave and new ones join.

Purpose(s): Use this tool when you want to have a deep exploration of an issue.

Time: Up to 90 mins, but can still be useful in an hour or less.

Resources: None

Instructions: It allows an open forum while keeping a focused discussion.  Use this for groups of minimum 10 – maybe 100, perhaps even more.  The question is important – keep it open, non-judgemental and non-directive.  Set a time limit – about 1.5 hours is usually plenty.

Set up five or six chairs in the centre of the room in a circle, facing inwards towards each other. Arrange further seating around this central circle, also facing inwards. Everyone starts sitting on the outer chairs. Start off the process with something that focuses people on the topic – an introduction, maybe a visualisation or reflective exercise.

When someone from the outer circle/s has something to say they can come and take an empty chair on the inner circle and join the discussion.  You may have experts whom you want to stay in the centre throughout, or to start off the discussion. The discussion starts when there are two people in the inner circle.  When all the chairs are occupied someone from the inner circle who feels complete should leave.  One chair of the inner circle should be empty most of the time.

Only those in the centre can speak, and they speak only to each other.  They may refer to what someone said earlier, but not actually say it to them or start a dialogue outside the circle.  Allow some time for feedback from everyone present at the end whether they have spoken or not.

Source: Tools for transition in The Transition Handbook by Rob Hopkins