Using ‘fishbowl’ as a learning technique

At the last L&D Connect unconference – Bold L&D – we experimented with a particular facilitation technique called fishbowl.

It was massive, it was brilliant, and it was powerful.


What is it? Well, the form of fishbowl we chose to use went thus:
– select a topic for discussion
– ask a group of 3-5 people to be the ones having the discussion and would be seated in the middle of the room
– all other people present sit around the discussion group as an audience

There are some rules which kind of look like this:
– the group of 3-5 are the ones having the discussion
– the role of the audience is to observe and are invited to participate by the facilitator
– the group choose to include the observations of the group as part of their discussion or not

The facilitation of the discussion went like this:

– the group are asked to discuss the topic for five minutes
– a facilitator sits in the audience and observes
– facilitator pauses the group and invites the audience to participate offering their observations – without immediate comment from the group
– the group are then asked to continue their discussion
– this is repeated up to another two times depending on the flow of the conversation

As an added dimension, we included the use of Twitter and backchannel discussions as input into the discussion. The group were unaware of the backchannel mostly because they were immersed in the conversation. The audience were tweeting soundbites from the conversation, and the facilitator fed some of these comments to the group at the appropriate times.

There were a lot of useful insights and learnings for me from using this facilitation technique.

The first was you can only use this technique with a group once you have established a level of trust as a group. That means you need to be doing a set of activities or tasks before the fishbowl so that boundaries can be tested and people understand something about how each other operates and thinks.

The nature of the fishbowl means that you can provoke, encourage, and debate a topic as much as the group want that to happen. I chose to participate in one discussion and deliberately took a provocative stance on a topic I have particular thoughts about. Partly I allowed myself to do this, and partly I wanted to test the water to see what would happen. It’s not something I’d advocate, but what was interesting was the reaction to that approach.

It is not an inclusive technique as it actively encrouages only those who wish to experience that type of learning experience. This will mean that either the topic will allow for people with particular thoughts to be present, or it means that those who have no combunction about being actively observed will put themselves forward. It also means only those who are comfortable contributing from the audience will do so, and this may not be everyone.

Receiving input from observers feels intrusive, and this is the point about trust mentioned earlier. If I trust the group, I accept the comments. In accepting the comments, I can decide if I want to include them in my discussion or not. If I don’t trust the group, then I will also be influenced by the comments as I will feel the need to include them in order that I respond.

In an internal setting, such a technique needs to be used carefully and with purposeful intent. I have used it only once in the last six years. I used it in the context of helping to provide someone with feedback about their personal development. It was a mix of highly concentrated, defensive, challenging, and focused. The individual was left reeling from the experience, and it took some weeks before we were able to discuss his learnings from the fishbowl.

I would and will use this technique again, and this time will be seeking to use it as a facilitation technique as part of a development programme as an alternative to an action learning set.


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Sukh Pabial

I'm an occupational psychologist by profession and am passionate about all things learning and development, creating holistic learning solutions and using positive psychology in the workforce.

4 thoughts on “Using ‘fishbowl’ as a learning technique”

  1. As I was reading, I kept wondering when you’d use this…..for what purpose….. I can definitely see it as an action learning set alternative and I get the point about needing trust to be established first but wonder whether you could use this for team development to raise awareness of diversity within a team, with the observers noticing where the discussion group members aren’t ‘hearing’ what others are saying. Ultimately moving the team from a place of frustration with difference, to a place of appreciation of diversity. Potentially explosive??

    1. I think the context for using fishbowl is of vital importance.

      I like the idea of using it to discuss and raise awareness of diversity and exposing unknown behaviours.

      In a different context, it could be used as a form of process/service development. For example, the team need to discuss and evaluate the purpose of a particular process. The central group discuss, the audience provide their observations of the discussion – not of the topic – and allow the group to continue.

      It could also be used as a form of feedback to individuals. The group are asked to discuss a topic at hand, and the audience provide feedback on the behaviours and language of the individuals.

      i’d almost suggest you try it for the sake of it, as an exploration. Once you’ve had an experience of facilitating it, it will give you a better sense of how to use it purposefully.

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