Divergent Thoughts

How to take what you know and share it…

Using the Fish Bowl for Quiet Groups

Fishbowl_2The Fish Bowl is a spontaneous conversation among a small group of knowledgeable people, within a larger group setting. Adapted from the Socratic Circle, the Fish Bowl enables people to articulate ideas and share experiences off the cuff, without any preparation. It is in the assumption that the answers are within the group. (The methodology is described in a previous post, please click here to read more.)

Having used it in various situations, I’m amazed by the versatility of the tool. In this outing, we used the Fish Bowl in a government panel session which included ministerial representatives with extensive knowledge and experiences. They were a group of approximately 20 people from 15 countries who followed the workshop proceedings over several days.

The government group sat in a circle while other participants stood just outside and observed the exchange. We added two chairs within this circle for any observer who would have liked to share their views at any point. With the guidance of a skilled moderator, the group was coaxed into sharing their views on some of topics discussed in the workshop. In the outer circle, it was pin drop silence as people listened attentively, the energy especially high as they were privy to their conversations.

Some observations:

  • This was a group that had been fairly quiet in the workshop, so we asked someone to moderate the discussions and help them get comfortable with chatting informally. The moderator set the tone with a lively exchange, asked probing questions when there was a lull and generally kept the conversations going.
  • People were genuinely interested to share what they knew. The circle appeared to have created a safe sharing space.
  • The outer circle of participants listened actively. They had the opportunity to contribute as needed. Two empty chairs were allocated for this purpose.
  • Rapporteurs sat close by and captured the highlights from the session
  • In multi-lingual workshops, it is a good idea to have translators sitting next to or behind participants who don’t speak English.

Fishbowl_1Why use Fish Bowl?

It’s really a great way to get people who aren’t comfortable sharing in large groups to open up. By placing the group in a circle, and creating a closed setting, the space begins to feel safe and conducive for sharing.

It is also a pleasant alternative to lengthy panel discussions on stage which could take a toll on the audience and panelists alike. Similarly, a group of people actively listening in on a closed “Fish Bowl” conversation makes for a more interesting session than sitting in a theatre-style auditorium listening to someone with a 30-slide PowerPoint presentation.


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