Fishbowl technique


The fish bowl activity is used to manage group discussion.

The general idea is that rather than a large group having an open discussion about something, which can be difficult to handle and often only benefits a few active participants, a smaller group (ideally 3 – 6 people) is isolated to discuss while the rest of the participants (maximum of 50 people) sit around the outside and observe without interrupting. Facilitation is focused on the core group discussion. Less people = easier to facilitate.

"Fishbowls" are useful for ventilating “hot topics” or sharing ideas or information from a variety of perspectives. When the people in the middle are public officials or other decision-makers, this technique can help bring transparency to the decision-making process and increase trust and understanding about complex issues. Sometimes the discussion is a “closed conversation” among a specific group. More often, one or more chairs are open to “visitors” (i.e., members of the audience) who want to ask questions or make comments. Although largely self-organizing once the discussion gets underway, the fishbowl process usually has a facilitator or moderator. The fishbowl is almost always part of a larger process of dialogue and deliberation." (Knowledge Sharing Toolkit, 2014)


‘Fish battle’: ‘Instead of the typical 3-6 seats in the middle for the talking participants, here it’s a one-on-one debating the pros and cons of a given subject. Participants outside the duelling duo tend to take one side and when they want to enter the battle they gently tap the shoulder of the duellist – civilised fishes we are! An alternative to this option is the Samoan circle. Lessons about the fish battle option include’ :

  • This divergent option (read: brings lots of ideas, not structure) works best with a wider group and as a brainstorming option;
  • It’s advisable to note down the key discussion points or you might end up with a rich but undocumented discussion;
  • It puts the emphasis on having to listen carefully
  • You may want to have a standing outer circle to avoid outer participants to fall into sleep."

(Le Borgne 2010)

Advice for choosing this method

  1. As an alternative to traditional debates
  2. As a substitute for panel discussions
  3. To foster dynamic participation
  4. To address controversial topics
  5. To avoid lengthy presentations. 
  6. Analyze the appropriateness of this technique to the objectives of the event. (Knowledge Sharing Toolkit, 2014)

Advice for using this method

  1. Obtain agreement from the event organizers to implement a fishbowl.
  2. Communicate ahead of time with anyone you specifically want to participate in the fishbowl, explaining how the process works and what their role will be.
  3. Make sure that the physical space permits a fishbowl setup
    1. A few chairs in an inner circle (elevated if necessary to be visible to all)
    2. Concentric rings of chairs and/or round tables around the inner circle;
    3. Aisles to permit easy access to the inner circle
    4. Microphones if needed
    5. Easel stands or paper on walls for written or graphic recording of key ideas is sometimes helpful
  4. To begin, invite the representatives to sit up front, explain to the group how the process will work, and open the floor with a provocative question, inviting the representatives in the fishbowl to comment."  (Knowledge Sharing Toolkit, 2014)
  5. Allow about 5-10 minutes for discussions in the core group, before opening up the floor for questions for another 10 minutes.
  6. Give the core group a time limit after which the observers can then ask a question or comment on a particular part of the discussion.
  7. Invite observers to join the discussion or switch places with one of the core group so that the discussers are rotating.
  8. After a certain amount of time (e.g. 5 mins), swap the groups so that observers now discuss while the discussers now observe. After the second group has discussed, get them to reflect on each other’s discussions. (Knowledge Sharing Toolkit, 2014)


Knowledge Sharing Toolkit (2014). Fish Bowl. Retrieved from:

Le Borgne, E. (2010) ‘Share Fair Addis: Fishbowl and fishbowl battle’, blog, accessed 16 December 2010

Expand to view all resources related to 'Fishbowl technique'

'Fishbowl technique' is referenced in: