Trainer's Notebook: Fishbowl Facilitation Technique | Beth's Blog

Trainer’s Notebook: Fishbowl Facilitation Technique

Instructional Design, Trainer's Notebook

Last week, I participated in the “Funders Learning Lab: Investing in Networks and Network Leadership.”  The participants included both funders and practitioners with expertise in networks, leadership development, philanthropy and social justice.   The goal was to add to our collective understanding about investing in network leadership and networks.   The lab was convened by Leadership Learning Community and Center for Social Sector Leadership.  It was expertly facilitated by Alison Lin and Odin Zackman.

When I get to participate in sessions that are focused on content that I’m intensely interested in AND are well designed and facilitated, it creates the perfect storm for learning in my field and the trade craft of facilitation.

One session used the “Fishbowl” technique.    It can be done in different ways, but in the lab they placed four chairs in the center of the room.  The rest of the chairs were placed in a circle around them or the “bowl.”   Three people or “fishes” came to the center chairs to have an intimate learning conversation, while the rest of the participants listened.    After 15 minutes, someone could join the conversation and occupy the fourth chair.   From there, people rotated in and out of the bowl.

The ground rules were simple:

  • Listen, watch
  • After 15 minutes other people can join the conversation
  • If all chairs are filled, simply tap one of the participants on the shoulder and they give you their seat
  • Fish can choose to leave whenever they want
  • Fish should talk to each other, not the people on the edge

This is a great way to keep everyone in a smallish gather engaged while going deeper into a conversation.    This techniques lends itself to reflective conversations versus didactic content.

Have you ever used a fish bowl in your convenings or trainings?  How?  Did you do it differently?

8 Responses

  1. Elaine Fogel says:

    Never heard of it, Beth, but it’s a super idea to try next time I’m training a group. Thanks!

  2. I love using fishbowls, this is a new way that I hadn’t heard of. I’ve used it in meetings to facilitate an interesting conversation among people that had gone on a site visit about what they learned, they were the fish. The people on the outside got to hear about the highlights without a boring presentation. I’ve also used it in trainings in different ways, I’ve had a group of “fish” in the middle talking about some tools they used, how they used them, and share about their results, as a way of teaching about the tools. Then we had the people who hadn’t used the tools review them and discuss them. Then we did a second fishbowl with the people who had just learned about them sitting in the middle as “fish” who shared their thoughts about how they might use the tools. Thanks so much for sharing.

  3. Barbara Glickstein says:

    I love this learning process. I have even used it in the classroom of a graduate course in nursing on health policy that I teach. It allows people to share their expertise, make a point to advance the discussion, or ask a question. The concentric circle (the bowl) creates an energy that is palpable. One member of the bowl was on her mobile phone and not listening or engaging. A member called her on it and she regrouped.
    This works in bigger circles too.

  4. Beth says:

    Barbara, can you share have you done this in bigger circles? Any tips?

  5. Ruth Kustoff says:

    This is an interesting learning process. Thanks for sharing.

  6. Great technique! I can’t wait to give it a try. Thanks for sharing, Beth.

  7. Beth says:

    Katherine, thank you so much. Let me know how it goes