Facilitation and strategic planning

Support for strategic thinking.

Running a fishbowl discussion online

A fishbowl discussion is a way of managing a conversation in a larger group. In the room, it consists of an inner ring of chairs (the fishbowl) and an outer ring, where the observers sit. In an 'open' fishbowl, participants can move in and out of the inner circle freely, making the discussion dynamic and free flowing. It's a nice alternative to breakout groups, if you don't want the conversation fragmented, and it's more interactive than a panel discussion. 

Since the start of the pandemic, I was intrigued by the idea of moving the fishbowl online, and finally got the opportunity to try it out in Voltage Control's Facilitation Lab. Voltage Control, a training and consultancy organisation based in Austin, Texas, run a free weekly online session for facilitators to get together and try out new techniques. It's a sort of Open Mic for facilitation - each week, a facilitator volunteers to run a session showcasing a particular technique or tool, and in January 2022, I ran a session on the online fishbowl. Here are some tips that I picked up. 

1. Zoom lends itself well to the online fishbowl, particularly if you use the 'hide non-video participants' function

To recreate the 'inner circle', ask everyone on the Zoom call to turn their video and mics off, except you and the first participants in the fishbowl. Then, if anyone wants to join, they can do so simply by turning on their video and mic, and participants can leave the fishbowl by turning it off. 

This is most effective if you use the 'hide non-video participants' function in Zoom. Here's how to activate that: 

  • Choose gallery view from the top right hand corner menu.
  • Click on the three dots on any participant that has their video off to hide non-video participants.
  • To show non-video participants again, click on the three dots on any participant with their video on.

2. Cameras on 'if' is the perfect icebreaker to lead in to an online fishbowl. 

Cameras on 'if' is the online version of 'Step forward if' which you might have played face-to-face - Step forward if you're wearing blue/had cereal for breakfast this morning, etc. Online, this becomes: Turn your camera on if...you're wearing white/you have a window near your desk/it's evening where you are. It's nice if you can pick on a participant for a follow up comment - Helen, what can you see out your window? Carolina, it's evening where you are, where are you based? You might start with very general questions, to get everyone used to turning cameras on and off, and to speaking in the group, and then move to questions that are more relevant to the topic you want to introduce in your fishbowl. In my case, because I was using the fishbowl to discuss fishbowl discussions (very meta) I asked 'Cameras on if you have participated in a fishbowl discussion before? And those people then became my first fishbowl participants. 

3. Not seeing the outer participants means more careful planning is needed. 

The 'hide non-video' participants works really well to highlight the fishbowl and the movement in and out of the discussion. And participants in the outer circle appreciated the freedom to sit back and really listen, as opposed to worrying about their body language and reactions. However, it's also easier for your outer circle to get bored of the discussion after a while, and start multi tasking! Ways to mitigate against this include: keeping the fishbowl discussion short, or ensuring that you have a clear series of questions, and that each segment is short; encouraging use of the chat and perhaps even another online tool like Mural or Google Jamboards to record the discussion. 

I am very grateful to Voltage Control for the chance to run this practice session, and to all the other facilitators who came along and gave me their expert feedback. Visit Voltage Control to find out more about their consultancy and training, and to sign up for Facilitation Lab. 




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