By Dan O’Reilly-Rowe, 2009.

Sometimes in order to get a good sense of where a group is at on a certain topic it can be useful to simply observe a discussion, rather than participate in it. The fishbowl configuration for discussion and observation can be used to allow this type of reflection. Alternately, fishbowling can be used to allow two opposing factions in a group time to speak and to listen to one another.

Goals

  • Encourage active listening
  • Provide a space for focused discussion on a topic.

Participants

  • Unlimited

Materials

  • Pens
  • Paper

Instructions

  • Arrange chairs in two concentric circles (an inner circle and an outer circle), with all chairs facing a center point. Divide the group into two groups and have each sit in one of the rings of chairs.
  • Participants in the inner circle are inside the fishbowl. Discussion in response to a facilitator’s question will happen inside the fishbowl.
  • Participants in the outer circle are outside the fishbowl. They will be observing, taking notes, and reflecting their observations back to the inner circle after the conversation in the fishbowl is complete.
  • The facilitator asks a question, or poses a topic of discussion to the participants in the inner circle. They then discuss it for a defined period of time.
  • During the conversation, the outer circle should observe the conversation and take note of interesting or important aspects. This might include pulling specific quotes, noting trends in the conversation, or even noting body language. While the inner circle is speaking, the outer circle is silent.
  • When the inner circle’s conversation time is up, they become silent while the outer circle reflects back their observations of the conversation. The outer circle does not continue or add new information to the conversation, they simply report what they saw.
  • The two circles then swap positions and repeat the process with either the same or a different topic.
  • Facilitators should keep their involvement in the discussion in the fishbowl to a minimum. Their primary role should be to ensure that all those in the fishbowl are contributing to the conversation and that the roles of the inner and outer circles are respected.
  • If appropriate, provide some time at the end for the group to process as a whole so that members of the two circles have an opportunity to directly address each other.

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