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Facilitation Tools Under The Spotlight: The Fishbowl

The Fishbowl is a facilitation technique that encourages participation from the audience and is a useful alternative to a lecture or the regular moderated panel discussion. I have used the tool on many occasions and find it very useful.

Chairs are arranged as shown in the image below. Persons seated in the outer circle observe and listen. Once someone wishes to join the discussion, they take a seat on the white (empty) chair in the inner circle.

The red chairs are panelists who remain seated throughout the entire conversation.

The intention is for the white chair to be a "rotating" one. That is, it should be vacated to allow someone new to join the conversation.

Chairs set up in inner and outer circles
Fishbowl Facilitation Tool

However, the method does have pitfalls. I have had audiences who are shy with no one wanting to be the first person to sit in the inner circle on the empty chair. Likewise, persons may feel like they are being rude and interrupting the flow of conversation by taking a seat. As such, they are unsure of when is the right time to enter the inner circle.

I plan for the above scenarios by briefing a few persons beforehand to take the empty seat if it is vacant for too long. Additionally, the facilitator has to give clear instructions at the start to prevent confusion. For example, instructions on how participants will let the person in the inner circle know that they wish to take a seat, and conversely how sitting persons will exit the seat (e.g. do they make a comment and leave the chair empty, or do they have to wait for a replacement before they can stand up).

Overall, the Fishbowl is a participatory and engaging facilitation tool that is sure to inject life into a session.


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​​​Ann-Murray Brown

Monitoring, Evaluation and
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