Toolbox: Fishbowls

Episode 6 of the Resist + Renew podcast, where we get into “fishbowls” as a facilitation tool: what they are, when they’re useful, and their limitations.

‘That’s a key component – you go into it expecting to listen 80% of the time.’ – Ali

Show notes, links

Find “Fish bowl” on Seeds for Change’s tools page. See Training For Change’s tool description for an example of how to use fishbowls in practice.

See our “What is facilitation?” podcast episode page for more general facilitation resources.


Ali: This is Resist + Renew.

Kat: A UK-based podcast about social movements.

Sami: What we’re fighting for, why, and how it all happens.

Ali: The hosts of the show are:

Kat: Me Kat,

Sami: Me, Sami,

Ali: and me, Ali,

Sami: I’m recording this now baby

Ali: Shit it’s a podcast.


Ali: So welcome back to the toolbox as part of the Resist and Renew podcast. This is where we geek out and look at what might be in your facilitator’s toolbox, looking at different tools, what they’re good for, why you might use them, and what their limitations are.

Kat: And this week, we’re going to be looking at the fishbowl. And I’m going to start us off by explaining a bit about what the fishbowl is. And so fishbowl is when you want to have a conversation between a few people when you’ve got a larger group, and you would set up the room with two circles, a large circle where most people would sit and then a smaller circle in the middle. And this allows for a few people to be having a conversation while everybody else is able to observe and sometimes interact with that conversation. So there are two main kinds of fishbowl that I want to talk to us about. One is an open fishbowl and the other is a closed fishbowl. So the closed fishbowl is when the seats in the middle circle stay the same. So you have the same people having a conversation for the duration. And it’s not possible for anybody else to join that conversation, which means everybody else on the outside is just in the listening and observer role.

Kat: Then you can also have an open fishbowl where you have one seat in the middle that is there that people can use on the outside circle to join the inside circle. And that allows for different people to move in and out of the conversation for the duration, which can make it much more interactive, and then that a closed fishbowl but which one you want depends a little bit on what you’re trying to do with the conversation.

Ali: Sweet. I guess the only other thing to add is that you can have like choices on how those people move in and out. Sometimes it’s like an empty seat, which is a bit then it puts the onus on like the people in the middle to decide who’s gonna leave. And sometimes you tap the person on the shoulder who you want to kick out of the middle circle which requires a bit more guts, but I like it because you get to like get rid of someone who’s spoken a lot.

Sami: Like going right into the conflict.

Kat: Who taps out? Someone from the outside circle goes in and says I want you to leave?

Ali: Yeah. I like bold, bold,

Sami: Beef, beef. So, example of fishbowl in practice. So in 2016 am in a few people organised an event called “Building effective solidarity”, which was bringing together a lot of people that do things that could broadly return solidarity work from a lot of different kind of environments, with the aim being like bringing together different people from different backgrounds and seeing how they could work together and learn from each other. And one of the aims for that day was we wanted to make sure that we centred voices that aren’t always listened to or heard in a lot of the like kind of conversations that happen around solidarity and like the what I see as the mainstream of like grassroots political organising in London in the UK. And so what we thought a great tool for that would be was having a fishbowl. And so we had a few hand selected people that sat in the centre. So ran it an open fishbowl and in the language that Kat was using before so and made sure that we were very clear in terms of what kind of voices we were welcoming into the centre of the circle to say like you are welcome to join. But remember what the space is for this is to centre voices who want normally heard or listened to. And, and it worked quite well. And specifically because it meant the people who wouldn’t have had the confidence to speak on what would have been more like a panel felt more able to engage. Creative an environment, there’s a lot more like chatty and backwards and forwards rather than like a person a talk for five minutes Person B talk for five minutes and minimise the thing that people often worried about with panels, which is like more hostile questions from the audience. And, and I think that was really brought out there was a person that wanted to drop out of being one of the speakers in the fishbowl because they felt worried about talking in front of that group of people, or more accurately any group of people, they’ve not done it before, but me and one of the people that was going to be like a participant in the closed centre of the fishbowl, talked to that person about like, how it was going to go and how we’d be up for supporting them if they still wanted to take part and they did. And so that’s like an example and other thoughts in terms of how we structured it is it was part of a one day event. So it’s all people that didn’t really know each other had out maybe only been together for a few hours, some of them. So we thought it would be good to put it not right at the start of the day. So once there been a bit more of that kind of culture of trust built up in the space, and, and so we put it after lunch when we thought some people may appreciate sitting and listening space.

Ali: Sweet. Great, I definitely like the I agree the bit about the chattiness. And like more of a conversation, because panels can be like very static, and just especially yeah, they can just be like people monologuing. And that’s really boring, but fishballs kind of, they have that element for like the first couple of minutes, and then people like, dive in, and then start actually talking to each other. So I feel like it’s really, really good tool for that.

Sami: More of a facilitated conversation. Yeah, which I think is a nice vibe. And also and if there’s something about like, really the physicality of it like that you like, if you’re sitting in a circle in the centre with maybe four other people, like it doesn’t, obviously, you know in the back of your mind that you are surrounded by potentially 40 or 50 people, depending on the space that are listening to you. But you do it feels a lot more like you’re having a conversation with the small people around you rather than a panel where no matter how you set it up, it always has the kind of lecture people at the front facing out vibe.

Ali: Yeah, totally. So I guess limitations of fishballs. I think I didn’t hear about them for ages. And then I used them a few times. And then I kind of heard they came become kind of became like a go to tool in conflict situations. And a lot of times in like a retreat II, five day course vibe, when things have gone a bit off the rails. And I feel like it sometimes works. And sometimes it doesn’t. And I guess things that are required for it to work are kind of like a lot of time, so like giving it enough time to go into the conversation and kind of like a lot of flexibility around how long it’s gonna last because sometimes it’ll go really deep, and people will get into something, and sometimes it just won’t go anywhere. So it might need to shorten. And like one that I was part of that was quite short, I don’t know how long it was like might have been like an hour or less. It felt really rushed. And there was there was like tension on this course, like a residential course. And there was an older white guy who was talking a lot. And yeah, shock horror. Yeah. And one of the facilitators of the course kind of like tried to use the fishbowl moment as like a Oh, have you noticed, like, you’re doing this thing. And I don’t know, it just didn’t feel like that was the collective holding of that space. And it didn’t, it just didn’t really happen like. So I don’t know, like, I feel like time and trust, and just enough holding of it is a key thing. And if it’s not there, then it just feels feels a bit flat sometimes.

Sami: Which I guess links into one or potentially like, obviously, it depends on like how you do it like was placed at the start by Kat. But I think the if you do run a closed fishbowl, there is always the risk, especially if you’re doing it in the context, like I mentioned before, it’s people that don’t know each other, where potentially you’ve never tried to have a conversation as that group before, you don’t know how much it’s going to flow. And you don’t know how much of a struggle it’s going to be. So having a closed fishbowl can be quite, the word that’s coming to my mind is like ossifying, it can really like lock it down into like, a group of a few people. And you can’t open it up by the structure of the conversation. So you’re just kind of you’re locked in.

Kat: Yeah, and I think a risk with the open fishbowl is that it’s still a very observed seat, even though you’re not in a panel, you’re still in the middle of potentially 50/60/70 people if you’re doing two groups split in circles. And that can be quite intimidating, which means only certain people will choose to go into that position. And I really like what you said, Sami and the example you gave around like actually naming who you want to be encouraging into that space. Because I think that does a lot to overcome that problem of who is likely to put themselves in the middle. But it only goes so far potentially because it is still a very watched space.
Sami: And I guess that maybe highlights a thing, which I think we maybe said before, but just in case we didn’t it’s like generally the conversation in the centre is a facilitated conversation. It is not just a group of people chatting in the middle, it is often quite potentially quite strictly facilitated, which means that if you are doing something that’s open and you do have somebody that comes in and tries to dominate the conversation, and in a way that feels like unproductive with where the groups and the vibe like it’s I think that you can it’s called the classic facilitation challenge that it’s on you to like, hold and deal with. I have a, I have another alternative. It’s not in the structure structure down, around, which came up from in conflict transformation course thing that we’ve all been kind of participating in and consuming some of the stuff I’ve been talking about, there was a tool that somebody described as a frying pan, which is like a fish bowl. But like an even more extreme version of the thing, which Ali mentioned, where you can decide who you want to tap out of the thing. The frying pan works like a fishbowl, but you can nominate who else you want to go into the centre. Yeah. So even even more dramatic.

Kat: That fills me with dread. Oh, my God,

Sami: I know, you can. So obviously not suitable for all spaces, right? But you can definitely imagine some scenarios where that could be good. And some scenarios, that would be a nightmare. It’s an option.

Ali: How do we wrap this up?

Sami: Top constructive takeaways: I think for me, there’s really that question around like fish bowls can be really productive, but they really aren’t, they often fit only at certain bits in a conversation, generally not near the start. So like that, for me is always a thing to consider in the importance of doing a fish bowl.

Ali: I love fish bowls. I think they’re like, really fun.

Kat: They are your favourite tool

Ali: It is my favourite. And I hardly ever use it. So maybe I need to do more. I just think they’re like, yes. Interesting. I hate interesting. I think they’re a, like, engaging way of having like in depth conversation. And forcing a lot of listening. And listening is like, I think that’s a key component like you go into it expecting to like listen like 80% of the time. And I think that that’s a really helpful framing as well.

Sami: You’re not forcing yourself to think of a really good question for the q&a, but of the panel discussion. You’re just focusing on? Yeah, yeah.

Kat: And kind of follow on from that. I think for me, the takeaway is that they’re really good for like thinking and deepening into a conversation, because you’re in that really broad listening space, and you have that focused conversation happening in the middle. If it’s facilitated well, it can really do a lot to deepen the conversation that’s been happening maybe in the wider group over over whatever it is you’re holding.

Ali: Yeah.

Sami: Love it.

Ali: Beautiful. Fishbowls.

Sami: Each one has to end with us all singing in harmony.

Ali: Thanks for listening to this episode of the toolbox as part of the Resist and Renew podcast. Thanks as ever to Klaus for letting us use his tracking Nef for backing track, intro and outro and if you want to find out more about Resist and Renew, you can check us out on all the socials and our website is and if you want to support the production of these podcasts, you can donate via our website.

Ali: Thanks again and see you next time.

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