dear adrienne: how to do a fishbowl conversation

people ask me questions. sometimes i answer.

question: do you have instructions for running a fishbowl?

answer: yes!

(a fishbowl is a way to have an intimate conversation with a lot of people.)

set up three or four chairs in the middle of a room – these are the fishbowl chairs. set the rest of the chairs in a close circle around the middle. it should be easy to get from any chair in the room to one of the fishbowl chairs.

choose a small group of people as the starting speakers. they should be people who are familiar enough with the topic to get a juicy conversation going. (some people do better if they know way ahead of time that you want them to be a starter speaker, so keep that in mind in planning your fishbowl)

let them go for 15-30 minutes to get the conversation going.

when it’s time to open it up (generally when you can see the unspoken words forming on the lips of people in the outer circle), tell everyone it’s their turn to join the conversation.

the general rules:

anyone in the fishbowl chairs can be tapped out after they speak 2-3 times (…this can be more or less depending on how many people are part of the room and hoping to speak. i’ve noticed it’s hard to have a rhythm of conversation with less than two opportunities to speak, and hard to get other folks to tap in with more than three.)

obviously no tapping someone mid-sentence.

encourage the room to pay attention to who is speaking – you want to engage the difference in the room, however it’s showing up, and center voices of those most impacted by the topic at hand (whether its young people talking about youth incarceration, divas with their nails did talking about the dangers of gels and acrylics, or white men talking about white male balding patterns).

no one can tap back in til everyone (or at least most people) have had a moment in the fishbowl.

the facilitator can stay in one seat guiding and grounding the conversation while people cycle in and out, or float around and encourage participation. most groups can self facilitate once the conversation gets going.

afterwards consider having folks pair up to notice what they gained from the conversation.


(any additional tips or guidelines you know of? please share them!)