Fishbowl Conversation Techniques

Fishbowl Conversation Techniques

A fishbowl conversation is a form of dialogue that can be used when discussing topics within large groups. Fishbowls involve a small group of people seated in a circle and having a conversation (fish). They are surrounded by a larger group of observers, seated in an outer circle (bowl).

The facilitator or subject matter expert gives a short input of 5-10 minutes, which sets out the general outline of the discussion, and after that, the inner circle starts to discuss.

The outer circle usually listens and observes. Whenever someone wants to participate and move to the inner circle, a participant from the fishbowl must free a chair and move to the outer circle.

Fishbowl Conversation is used to:

  • Include the “public” in a small group discussion.
  • Generate dynamic group involvement and have active participation from participants.
  • Discuss controversial topics (less productive for heavily didactical content).
  • Observe, analyze, and learn from another group’s thinking process (outer circle).
  • Include an alternative to a traditional debate.

Instead of hours of presentations, give the speaker(s) 5 to 15 minutes to present their ideas. Then the speaker(s) join the inner circle, which will be open for 1 to 3 ‘visitors,’ and the objective is to let the content emerge from the comments and questions of the group.

This reduces the distinction made between experts and the audience.

Open Fishbowl Conversation Technique

There are two types of fishbowl:

In the open fishbowl, a few chairs (1-2) in the inner circle (5-8 people) remain empty. Any member of the audience can, at any time, occupy the empty chair and join the fishbowl. When this happens, an existing member of the fishbowl must voluntarily leave the fishbowl and free a chair.

The discussion continues with participants frequently entering and leaving the fishbowl. Limitations to participants joining the inner circle can be put in place:

  • Time limit (1-5 minutes).
  • Only make one substantial statement or comment.
  • Participants can only enter the inner circle by changing position with the one on ‘the visitors’ chair.’

Closed Fishbowl Conversation Technique

In a closed fishbowl, all chairs are filled. The facilitator splits the participants into two groups (or more as needed). The initial participants in the inner circle speak for some time about the subject, as indicated by the facilitator.

When time runs out (or when no new points are added to the discussion), initial participants leave the fishbowl, and a new group from the audience enters the fishbowl. The new group continues discussing the previous issue. This may continue until many audience members spend time in the fishbowl.

In both cases, the fishbowl is closed when time runs out, and the moderator summarizes the discussion.

Then the facilitator.

  • Analyzes the appropriateness of this technique for the objectives of the event.
  • Explains to experts participating in the fishbowl ahead of time how the process works and what their role will be (no time for a long presentation, etc.).
  • Summarizes the discussion.
  • Encourages discussion and keeps it only among the inner circle.
  • Prepares some questions to ask the learners once they are assembled back into a large group. This is where the real reflection often occurs.


  • Divide the large group into two groups and let them prepare 2-4 questions for the other group. The inside group has a discussion on the questions. When everyone in the inner circle has had a chance to speak, reverse circles.

Feedback Fishbowl.

  • Let the inner circle discuss the assigned topic or problem (15-20 minutes).
  • Then have those in the inner circle turn around in their chairs and receive feedback from the outer circle on a one-to-one basis.
  • The inner circle returns to its prior discussion mode, integrating the comments of the outer circle into the new round of discussion (10-15 minutes).
  • Inner and outer circle switch places, and now the other group observes silently.

Homogeneous Fishbowl

People with similar opinions or experiences are invited to sit in the Fishbowl. Debates with contrasting viewpoints often lead to wasteful adversarial games with a lot of stress and incoherent statements because the point is for one side to win.

In a dialogue among the same side parties, such as in the homogeneous Fishbowl, the objective is not for one side to win but to provide the outer circle with evidence and logic to support their main points. Fellow participants will highlight other facets and bring nuances, and new perspectives and understandings can arise.

Heterogeneous Fishbowl

One person from each main viewpoint on the topic is invited to sit in the fishbowl.

Multiple Fishbowls

If the total training group is fairly large, for example, 20-30 participants, you can have multiple fishbowls going on simultaneously. Upon completion of the discussions, take one or two representatives from each Fishbowl to present its view in a new central Fishbowl

After this round of discussion, allow feedback from the observers or let the representatives return to their respective Fishbowl for further discussion.

  • Explain the nature of group conflict. State the different sources of group conflict.
  • State the different types of groups. Explain the various stages of group development.
  • State the basic differences between a group and a team. How can a team be made effective?
  • What are the problems faced by managers in handling a team that has a diverse workforce? Critically examine team conflict resolution techniques.
  • State the different strategies to resolve organizational conflict.
  • Explain the different steps involved in the problem-solving process.
  • State the different intervention strategies to manage intragroup conflict and intergroup conflict.
  • Explain the nature of organizational mirroring and fishbowl. How can a fishbowl be made effective?

Organizational Mirroring and Fishbowl

This intervention is designed to improve the relationship among three or more groups. Generally, the representatives of the work-related groups participate in an intervention exercise to give quick feedback to the host on how it is perceived.

The host group that is experiencing conflict with the work-related groups may invite key people from these groups to attend an organizational mirror exercise.

The manager of the host group explains the objectives of the meeting and the schedule for the exercise.

The consultant presents the findings of the conflict diagnosis performed on the participating groups.

The members of the work-related groups form a “fishbowl” to interpret and discuss the data presented by the consultant. The host group members listen and take notes.