In the fishbowl

Recently I attended a knowledge conference in an entirely different sector (knowledge mobilisation in health and social care) where I came across lots of ideas which were new to me which I’d like to share.

One of these was the “fishbowl conversation”, which particularly interested me as a means to have a conversation (with all the benefits that a small 4 person face-to-face conversation has) but share that conversation with a group.

As anyone who has met me/spoken to me/read this blog for a while will know, I am very keen on conversation as an efficient and effective means to uncover and share knowledge, so I was excited by the idea of a technique which promised to share the uncovered knowledge and experience from a conversation, including the non-verbal communication, with a wider audience.


goldfish bowl

Photo by kazuend on Unsplash


A fishbowl conversation works with two concentric circles of chairs:

  • The inner circle of about 4 people are the speakers and drive the conversation.
  • The outer circle sits quietly, listens, observes and thinks.

There is one spare chair in the inner circle and when someone from the outer circle wishes to join the conversation, they sit in the vacant chair and someone from the inner circle must leave and join the audience.

Often the inner circle also has an object (in our “fishbowl” it was …  of course … a model of Dory from Finding Nemo) to hold to make sure that only one person speaks at a time and there isn’t too much interrupting.

As well as listening to the verbal communication, the outer circle can observe the non-verbal communication and dynamics of the conversation.


I found the experience very interesting and I learned a lot from hearing other people’s experiences.

On hearing about the technique, I had wondered if those in the inner circle would feel shy or “on show” and so feel inhibited from sharing negative experiences, but that didn’t appear to happen.

The inner-circle changed quite seamlessly. There was respectful sharing and no one appeared to find the experience stressful. I personally didn’t join the inner circle as the topic under discussion wasn’t something I knew anything at all about, but those who did said afterwards that the experience was almost as intimate as a normal conversation and it didn’t feel like they were “on show” or on a panel.

There are different types of “fishbowl conversation”, depending on what the inner conversation is for.

The version I took part in is called an “open fishbowl” as those in the outer circle can join the inner circle, but there is also a “closed fishbowl” when the inner circle remains the same throughout the conversation and those in the outer circle stay in their seats and listen to the whole conversation without joining in.

What do you think?

Have you already tried this technique out? Did it work? How did you find it? Could this technique be useful in learning and knowledge-sharing situations or for difficult conversations in a business setting?

Thanks to Victoria Treadway and Tracey Pratchett (NHS knowledge and information services) for introducing me to fishbowls.

More info and resources


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About knowledge4lawyers

I am a lawyer and a Knowledge Management expert. Through The Knowledge Business I help law firms improve their efficiency and profitability through knowledge services - consultancy, training and implementation help.
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