Open Fishbowl

What is an Open Fishbowl?

Open Fishbowl is a tool for facilitating dialogue sometimes between experts, exposing knowledge while expanding the collective understanding of a subject.

Knowledgeable people, experts or people with deep knowledge or interest in the matter at hand (the fish) sit in an inner circle to discuss a series of directional questions, surrounded by a larger group of observers in an outer circle (the bowl) who can enter the conversation at any time.

The inner circle is the stage for speaking and contributing. Those in the outer circle must listen actively and move into the role of fish when they wish to participate in the conversation happening in the inner circle.

When is Fishbowl the best format to use?

  •  When looking for an alternative to traditional debates.
  •  As a substitute for panel discussions.
  •  To foster dynamic participation and address controversial topics.
  •  To avoid lengthy presentations and when you are looking to generate and share knowledge.
  • As  a process to support communities and networks of practice to learn and explore.
  • When you are looking to involve stakeholders.
  • As a process to assess, reflect or evaluate collectively around a particular subject.

What does an Open Fishbowl look like?

An OPEN FISHBOWL contains several empty chairs in the centre circle from the outset. Any member of the audience can join the discussion by occupying an empty chair at any time. A “fish” must voluntarily leave the centre circle to free a chair. The discussion continues with participants frequently entering and leaving the Fishbowl. Participants can have more than one opportunity to move into the inner circle.

How is Open Fishbowl applied?

    1. Firstly we identify two to three experts (or participants who have experience) on the issue to be discussed and brief the experts/participants on the Fishbowl process.


    1. Then, we set up a small circle of chairs surrounded by a larger circle, with three or four additional chairs to facilitate mobility.


    1. We open the session with the experts and the moderator in the center circle leaving a 2 or or 3 empty chairs for participants to join into the conversation. We explain the process, the objectives and the issue that will be discussed.


    1. The outer circle must always observe silently, and this principle should be enforced diligently by the facilitator. Participants in the outer circle can prepare questions and comments for when they are ready to move into the inner circle. they just take up an empty chair in the inner circle when they feel the urge to do it. Whoever has been in the inner circle the longest or feels they have finished with their contribution to the conversation steps out voluntarily to make sure there is always an empty chair in the inner circle.


    1. We make sure towards the end of the allocated time to invite views and contributions from people in the outer circle who didn’t join the inner circle but would like to contribute something from their position in relation to anything that was discussed.


    1. Once the topics or the time allocated have been covered, we as facilitators summarize the discussion and open the circle for a process debriefing, after removing the inner circle of chairs. During the debriefing, review key points, interesting comments and the group’s feelings regarding particular issues. Participants are allowed to develop their own conclusions and express themselves freely.


    1. When appropriate/ necessary, we create and provide participants with an overview document of the lessons learned and a list of key resources can be helpful after the exercise has ended.

Other considerations when facilitating an Open Fishbowl

The way to request a place in the inner circle is decided at the outset of the session. Often, simply standing up to indicate interest is enough. A tap on the shoulder may also be helpful, but being wary of cultural taboos. Much depends on the culture and composition of the group.

More reserved groups may require encouragement to take up a place in the inner circle. This can be helped by well-formulated objectives and introductions to the subject matter.

You can place limitations in the interest of time or fairness, such as everyone being required to make a minimum (or maximum) number of contributions in the centre circle. If the outer circle participants want to make more contributions after the fishbowl session has ended, we sometimes open a blog, wiki, discussion forum or social media (usually Whatsapp) group to continue capturing their comments, reflections and questions.


We usually hire a Graphic Recorder and/or appoint a note-taker/rapporteur to write down the key points of the fishbowl discussion on a flipchart and present a summary to the group after the fishbowl has ended.