How to design & lead an interactive fishbowl to explore complex issues across sectors

In this two-part article we outline the what and how of facilitating an interactive fishbowl.
Carri Munn
June 12, 2023
9 min

By Carri Munn and Elsa Henderson

In this two-part article we outline the what and how of facilitating an interactive fishbowl. Part 1 outlines general information about fishbowls, when a fishbowl works well, and what it takes to design and facilitate one successfully. Part 2 unpacks design considerations that contribute to realizing the potential of the fishbowl methodology.

What’s a fishbowl?

A fishbowl is an interactive way of hosting a large collective conversation where participants take turns participating and observing. A small group of participants who are speakers sit in the center, facing each other and engage in a conversation that is started and lightly supported by a facilitator. Other participants sit around the center in one or two concentric circles, listening to the conversation. If someone from the outer circle wants to speak, they get up, move to the center square and tap on the shoulder of someone in the center to swap places with them. The movement in and out of the field of play at the center brings a game-playing quality into the room. The spontaneity often keeps participants active and engaged.

Collaborative for Frontier Finance, Annual Convening 2022, Dar Es Salaam

A fishbowl encourages careful listening, dynamic participation, and emergence. The variable nature of the conversation invites attentiveness and participant contributions that build on what has already been said. In this way, a fishbowl is a highly participatory process conducive to shared sense-making. Done well, a fishbowl can also build community by drawing out ways participants might work together more collaboratively (Annenberg Learner).

Additionally, an interactive discussion in the form of a fishbowl can help increase trust among participants and cultivate a shared understanding of complex issues. The structure lends itself well to bridging cultural divides and exploring controversial topics (Learning for Justice). For example, consider using a fishbowl format instead of debates, panel discussions, or lengthy expert presentations. People have more fun and retain more information from a fishbowl than other group learning methods (Akbar, et al., 2018).

The secret to unleashing the potential of collective wisdom lies in framing discussion questions that engage multiple perspectives on polarized issues. The fishbowl format creates an opportunity for a group to navigate dynamic tensions, such as building trust and taking action, and self-interest and shared interest, that may be at play in their ecosystem, such as building trust vs taking action, or self-interest vs shared interest, (Ehrlichman, 2021). By intentionally and strategically inviting people to engage across differences, the fishbowl creates conditions for insights to pop like popcorn in the heat of shared awareness. The conversations are designed to generate the understanding and confidence necessary for a group to align their actions towards systemic change.

Impact Networks for collective learning and action are active all over the world in areas of education, land conservation, healthcare, science, business, and agriculture. When many stakeholders come together to effect large scale changes in the system they participate in, it takes time to listen, learn, and understand the relationships and dynamics at play in the system they intend to shape. Before sharing how to frame the questions, we begin by looking at the context. A beautifully executed design may fall flat if it’s not a good fit for the situation. With this in mind, it is helpful to consider your group’s composition, ways of relating with each other, openness to possibility, and willingness to experiment.

When is a good time to use a fishbowl?

A situation is ripe for a generative conversation when there is a combination of fixed perspectives, outdated ways of doing things, misconceptions, and desire for change. If people share common language and general understanding of how the current system is operating, they can have a rich conversation about an issue without stumbling over definitions of terms, even if they don’t share the same power and capacity to influence the system.

“The fishbowl advanced the goal of the gathering which was to begin a dialogue across stakeholders that are seldom in the same room, let alone listening to each other.” –network coordinator

Research indicates fishbowl discussions help develop insight into how other people view the world. They foster more equitable social attitudes by increasing the way privileged people listen, engage, and empathize with less privileged people (Stanford University). This technique can help build an inclusive and supportive learning environment in your network.

When a fishbowl works well

The outlook is good for a fishbowl if your group has an abundance of goodwill along with a willingness to listen and share. An atmosphere of curiosity and possibility offers a space where diverse perspectives can be voiced, explored, and appreciated. This environment invites people to experiment with new ways of working to achieve a common purpose.

“The structure of the fishbowl encouraged commentaries and inputs from different perspectives, resulting in addressing the issue from multiple perspectives in real time. As a result, the discussion was more robust and comprehensive.” –participant

When a fishbowl may not work well

In a ripe situation, a fishbowl increases motivation and surfaces possibilities for action. In a group that isn’t ready for this activity, a fishbowl can be challenging. You might not find success with this method if people don’t share common language and there are significant information asymmetries where some people know more about certain topics than others. In these instances, participants with limited context may not be able to follow the conversation well enough to feel included and able to contribute. Similarly, a group with many newcomers may not have sufficient rapport for people to speak openly and honestly in the fishbowl. When people hold back their perspective, it limits a fishbowl’s potential to uncover insights and spark opportunities to collaborate.

Another aspect to consider in your group is whether participants have the capacity to keep the collective purpose of the group at the center. If some participants are likely to center themselves at the expense of others in the group, a fishbowl may quickly devolve into a platform for self-promotion. People who do not recognize their interdependence with others will often center their individual stories at the expense of the group’s learning. Initial framing by the facilitator helps set a foundational expectation to care for the whole. Still a few loud, proud voices can keep a group from unlocking the potential for collective action that serves the common good.

“At first, I could not see these business-minded, finance-oriented individuals engaging (the fishbowl) as anything other than a useless team exercise. It took just one person to put forward their thoughts and off things went. The fishbowl was a change in pace. More got unearthed and came forward in a humorous way.” –convening host

How it works (basics)

Collaborative for Frontier Finance, Annual Convening 2022, Dar Es Salaam

1. Set-up

A fishbowl requires a room large enough for initial small group discussions followed by the fishbowl set up in three concentric circles of chairs (or two circles if you have a smaller group). If you are recording, amplification will be helpful. It’s nice to have a mic in the fishbowl so that speakers in the conversation at the center can talk at normal volume and all participants can easily hear from anywhere in the room.

“The environment of engagement was created by the combination of the physical construct, individual roles, the ability to thoughtfully reflect while sitting in the backbenches, and lite-handed probing by the facilitator.” –participant

2. Framing and Small Groups

The facilitator will initially frame the activity and the fishbowl topic. Then small groups, either four or eight groups of four to 12 people, will spend some time discussing one of four perspectives related to the fishbowl topic. While the groups are in discussion, the facilitator arranges eight chairs, two in each direction (north, south, east, west) to form a square facing each other. This arrangement becomes the center of the fishbowl.

3. Transitioning to the Fishbowl

After 20–30 minutes in small groups, the facilitator describes the transition to the fishbowl. To begin the transition, the facilitator invites eight people, (one or two people from each small group) to take a seat in the center. Each pair of chairs in the four directions represents one of the four perspectives from the initial discussion. The volunteers sit in the chairs according to the perspective explored by their small group. The facilitator then asks all remaining participants to self-organize into concentric circles of chairs around those at the center.

After everyone is settled, the facilitator explains how the fishbowl works as a collective conversation with people coming in and out of the circle by tapping someone in the center on the shoulder and switching spots with them. Anyone is welcome to take any of the perspectives when they step into the center. However, it is important to set the expectation that new people enter after about five minutes of the initial discussion and only tap someone out after they’ve had an opportunity to speak what they stepped in to share. This helps maintain a moderate pace in the conversation and allows people to integrate smoothly without disrupting the flow of the content of the discussion.

4. Initiating the conversation

“I was wondering if people would feel free enough to join the conversation and speak freely. The dialogue was animated and allowed folks to speak openly, even when critical of organizations in the room.” –participant

Once everyone is in place, the facilitator reiterates the perspectives held by each of the four directions and invites the audience to listen for how these perspectives appear in the conversation. The facilitator reminds the initial participants that they are embodying these particular perspectives and are speaking as voices within the ecosystem. Another point to emphasize is the invitation to accept and build upon what others are saying so that a coherent conversation unfolds. Using this ground rule of improvisation highlights the intention to hold space for learning and the opportunity to see beyond our current perspective and experience.

After setting the stage for engagement, the facilitator offers the first question to the initial participants in the center and invites them to share one by one. After this initial sharing, the facilitator steps back and releases the conversation to the group. At this point, the facilitator keeps time, only intervening to maintain the pace, protocols, and attend to any challenging behaviors. The minimum suggested time for the whole group discussion is 45 minutes. A highly engaged group may carry the collective conversation for 75 minutes.

5. Closing

When it’s time to move toward closing, the facilitator invites the group to reflect on what’s emerged in the conversation relative to the four perspectives and suggest some next steps. Before concluding, the facilitator highlights any additional points and observations that help the group synthesize the whole of the conversation. It’s a good idea to give the group at least a 30-minute break afterwards or schedule the fishbowl just before lunch. This gives people time to continue to move, reflect, and explore aspects of the discussion together.

“The fishbowl allowed for a wide range of voices while staying focused on the flow of discussion — avoiding tangential and distracting monologues. It constructed different ways of looking at issues, which is so important given that discussion on systemic challenges are complex and multifaceted.” –network coordinator


In summary, a fishbowl is an interactive way of hosting a large participatory conversation that invites people to share unique perspectives and engage complex topics. The format supports participants taking turns participating and observing. There are certain conditions that suggest when a fishbowl can advance trust and collaboration, and other indicators that suggest when a group may not be ready for this type of conversation. The dynamic quality of the fishbowl evokes spontaneity and fosters shared sense-making. The method supports diverse groups, especially impact networks, to learn about relationships and dynamics in the systems they seek to influence.

Converge is a network of strategists, designers, facilitators, and systems thinkers who help people and organizations navigate complexity and co-create a shared future. Learn more at

Carri Munn

Carri is a systems strategist, convening facilitator and leadership coach who cultivates thriving organizations and impact networks. She has been consulting with change leaders, teams, organizations, institutions, and networks for more than 25 years. Carri’s bright spirit, generosity, detail tracking, care and creativity make her a great partner to folks collaborating to foster change in complex systems. She is based in Portland, Oregon and enjoys working regionally and globally with people dedicated to re-imagining and co-creating a flourishing world for all.