Workshop Exercises: Discuss

Fishbowl Discussion

Allow only a few to participate in a discussion while letting the rest listen

Illustration of Fishbowl Discussion
Run a Fishbowl Discussion play

Alternative plays: Lean Coffee

Timing: Planning

Origin: Sam Kaner & Lenny Lind, 1996

Run time
20-60 minutes

Group size

Why: Manage large group dynamics through focused dialogue among few and understanding and learning among among all

When: Useful for engaging a large group in meaningful dialogue on complex or sensitive topics with diverse opinions or ideas

This workshop exercise is part of the Workshop Patterns printed card deck.

A collection of workshop exercises that will help you ditch dull meetings and facilitate with confidence. It will help you master the design process and have more productive time with your team. The card deck will be ready for purchase in the end of 2023 and is now undergoing rigorous testing.

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Instructions for running this play

  1. Arrange the chairs. Arrange a limited number of chairs in the middle of a room. Three is standard.
  2. Select participants. Invite the group to fill the ‘audience’ seats, leaving one empty. If you have three chairs, then the two people will engage in discussion.
  3. Agree on the topic. Agree on the topic of discussion. Consider using the second step of Lean Coffee to find out what people want to discuss.
  4. Explain the rules
    1. Anyone, at any point in time, can come and sit in the unoccupied chair in the middle and join the discussion. 
    2. When this happens, someone who is already participating in the discussion must voluntarily leave the ‘fishbowl’ and free up a chair.
    3. The rest of the participants will observe and listen from the outer circle.
  5. Timebox the discussion of the selected topic to 10 minutes and instruct the participants to begin the parlor.

Instructions for running this play

  1. Create participant avatars. Ahead of the session, create participant avatars.
  2. Check access. Once everyone is on the voice call, ensure participants have access to the Miro board, and that they can control their avatars.
  3. Explain the rules. Explain how the Fishbowl Discussion works (see step 6).
  4. Agree on a topic. Use the Lean Coffee tactic to help you agree on a set of topics to discuss.
  5. Select speakers. Ask for two volunteers to kick off the discussion, and then move their avatars into the “speaker seats”.
  6. Start the discussion. Timebox the conversation to 10 minutes (set a timer). At any point, if someone moves their avatar into the third available seat, one of the two speakers must volunteer themselves to leave the discussion and ‘sit’ back in the audience chairs.
  7. Conclude and move on. Continue until the timer ends. At this point, ask if everyone is happy to keep talking on this point, or if the group wants to move on to the next topic. Repeat until your session’s time is up.

Tips to perfect this play

Master and adapt the play to fit your context and needs.

Tip: Timebox rotating chairs

Consider using a Timebox for rotating chairs rather than ad hoc when people feel like it. This will help to force listening.

Tip: Free flow or moderated?

The discussion can be moderated, or it can be left to flow naturally.

Related plays

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