A tiny little bowl full of talking fish – A ShareFair “day 0” session


So we’re back to day 0 right? And back to fishbowl? I hope this time I’ll make a better job at giving the context and gist of a fishbowl than when I did itfor the AgShareFair.

The fishbowl format (picture credits: Instructional Design Fusions)

The fishbowl format (picture credits: Instructional Design Fusions)

But this time the situation’s tough: it’s only the five of us. Perhaps Etienne Wenger’s excellent introductory session – which coincidentally used a fishbowl format – inspired enough participants to skip this hands-on session? Nevermind, we will have our fishbowl session and it’s going to be a heads-on session for lack of hands to work with.

So what’s in a fishbowl? Two circles: the inner circle has 3 to 7 chairs (I prefer 4-5) and people occupying these seats can talk. The outer circle has chairs (or standing participants) that cannot say a word and just have to listen. The topic is set around a broad statement or question that should be wide enough that it can involve anyone around the table (it can also be very specific but then involve only people that know the specifics well enough).

What’s the difference between a fishbowl and its slight variation the Samoan circle? In the former, the inner participants (the talking fish) stay the same and others keep listening. In the latter, outer ring participants (the mute fish) can decide to tap on the shoulder of one of any talking fish to ask them to leave the circle, and they can sit there instead, to join the conversation. Talking fish may even decide to leave the talking circle any time, leaving a vacant seat that can be occupied by anyone.

Then someone may document the discussion by writing down on a flipchart all (key) points discussed – I suggest alternating colours every line to make the flipchart easier to read, though the point is not to follow what’s on the flipchart (that’s for documentation and information, i.e. for later) but on what’s going on in the fishbowl conversation.

Then we briefly discuss the final form: fishbowl battle, the one form that I emphasised in that past blogpost mentioned above.

The four participants wonder (and hereby some answers):

  • Q: When to use a fishbowl? A: Whenever you want to have deeper conversations (the necessity to shut up and to listen as mute fish means that we need to really think carefully about our questions and when we want to join the conversation).
  • Q: Is it a good format for Q&A? A: I didn’t use it this way but why not? The only thing that might be a pity is that it’s not really a participatory discussion but indeed a series of questions to one person that answers, though there is still a bit more interaction than in a typical Q&A session.
  • Q: How to make sure people join the inner circle and feel free to talk? A: Perhaps use some energisers, icebreakers or other approaches that involve small group discussions to create trust among participants and then the fishbowl will flow more easily. If you fear people may not join the circle because there’s some big mouths that always talk, ask those big mouths to document the discussion instead, or consider having different groups so you can keep the big mouths on their own.
  • Q: How to use people that have a lot of things to say? A: They will do it by themselves and if you really want them to talk about their specific experience, the fishbowl may not be the best format to us (the added risk is that they may steer the conversation towards their detailed experience only).
  • Q: Do you prompt certain people to start the fishbowl? A: You might, especially if you fear there might not be any spark to start the conversation, but in principle if the conversation is broad enough you can always start with empty seats and invite anyone to join. I usually have at least two people starting though.
  • Q: Should you use different questions during the fishbowl? A: Why not give it a try and see how it works? I never did it this way but you could have a multi-tier fishbowl and move from question to question.

My final take-home suggestions: stretch, tweak, adapt the flishbowl and any other approach to your needs and circumstances, don’t feel trapped by the format, find your authentic facilitation style and just keep on reflecting on what works or not and what could have been done to make it better.

This session hasn’t been a practical (hands-on) session, that’s a shame. But the conversation among five talking fish was quite nice and I hope useful. Let’s see if share fairs turn into giant aquariums…

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