Fishbowl (conversation)

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A fishbowl conversation is a form of dialog that can be used when discussing topics within large groups. Fishbowl conversations are usually used in participatory events like Open Space Technology and Unconferences. The advantage of Fishbowl is that it allows the entire group to participate in a conversation.


[edit] Method

Four to five chairs are arranged in an inner circle. This is the fishbowl. The remaining chairs are arranged in concentric circles outside the fishbowl. A few participants either volunteer or are selected to fill the fishbowl, while the rest of the group sit on the chairs outside the fishbowl. In an open fishbowl, one chair is left empty. In a closed fishbowl, all chairs are filled. The moderator introduces the topic and the participants start discussing the topic. The audience outside the fishbowl listen in on the discussion.

In an open fishbowl, 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. Depending on how large your audience is you can have many audience members spend some time in the fishbowl and take part in the discussion. When time runs out, the fishbowl is closed and the moderator summarizes the discussion.

In a closed fishbowl, the initial participants speak for some time. When time runs out, they leave the fishbowl and a new group from the audience enters the fishbowl. This continues until many audience members have spent some time in the fishbowl. Once the final group has concluded, the moderator closes the fishbowl and summarizes the discussion.

[edit] Advantages

An advantage of a fishbowl conversation is that it is suitable for large groups. Another advantage is that they do not make any distinction between the speakers and the audience. These two reasons have made fishbowls popular in participatory group meetings and conferences such as Open Space Technology and Unconferences.

[edit] Variations

Break the group into two subgroups of people who have something in common with each other. For example: Adults/Youth, male/female etc. Have the two groups meet separately and come up with three to four questions for the other group, then write them on cards. Reconvene and exchange cards. Form two circles, one subgroup inside the other, both facing in. Have the inside group read a question and have a discussion about it. Those in the outside circle listen but do not speak. Go through each question, making sure everyone in the inner circle has a chance to speak. Then reverse circles. The questions that the groups generate can be on the same subject or not, at the discretion of the organizer. This version is a good party game for large groups (30-60 people), commonly played by Young Religious Unitarian Universalists.[1]

Another derivative is to have the fish bowl run for a certain period of time - say, 30 minutes. The moderator stops the discussion in the fishbowl circle and invites those not in the inner circle to offer their thoughts and comments on what they are hearing in the inner circle.

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