Goldfish bowl technique

Why you should use this?

To become aware of other people’s perspectives of a situation. To encourage reflection on performance, communication skills, alternative approaches to difficult problems, lateral thinking in problem-solving.

When to use this?

You could use this technique in a workshop setting where group rules have been established and people who are part of the “inner” group feel safe undertaking their task whilst watched by those in the “outer” group.

What to do?

  • Position the seating in a private room so that people sitting on chairs in an ‘outer’ ring, observe the two or three people sitting together as an ‘inner’ group. Members of the inner group sit facing each other with their backs to the outer ring of people.
  • The people in the inner group perform a task such as undertaking a role-play set by the facilitator. They might act out a scenario where a senior person counsels a junior about his or her performance, for example.
  • The inner group may feedback their observations and feelings first as to how the task went, followed by the outer group feeding back their observations. Alternatively, the ‘inner’ and ‘outer’ group discussions may be held separately and then subsequently the two groups come together, so that everyone can hear what the others think. Feedback should be good and supportive (see Chapter 1).
  • Finally the whole group discusses the task, performance, observations and learning points facilitated by the teacher.

How it works? (insight)

The organisation of this exercise encourages observation and reflection. It is often difficult to see your own mistakes because you are too close to the issues. The ‘goldfish bowl technique’ not only allows participants to stand back and observe a situation relevant to their own being played out, but to exchange ideas with others about what could be done better and share good practice.

Whom to engage?

This exercise lets people who do not like undertaking role play, observe from the outer circle, as only a few participants will be required in the ‘inner group’. The technique is suitable for any discipline or level of seniority. Two facilitators might act out planned good practice or planned bad practice in the centre of the ‘goldfish bowl’ to start the exercise off.

How much time you should allow?

The time taken will depend on the nature of the role-play exercise. Allow a minimum of ten minutes for the role-play, followed by at least twenty minutes for the inner group and outer group discussions and additional time for drawing out the overall learning points.

What the facilitator should do?

Explain the arrangements for the exercise clearly so that those in the outer group understand that they must keep quiet and observe whilst the role-play is underway. Set out the task for those doing the role-play so that they cover all the ground necessary to bring out the key learning points that match the objectives of the exercise. Insist that the ‘rules’ for giving positive feedback are adhered to and encourage wide ranging discussion.

What to do next?

Consider running a second exercise using the goldfish bowl technique with a revised role-play and task that

have been informed by the discussion of the first round. Encourage individual participants to make an action plan around what they have learnt from participating in the role-play or through observing, and record their learning in their personal portfolios.

What makes it work better?

  • Ask for volunteers for the role-play rather than press gang reluctant individuals.
  • Choose a role-play and task that are immediately relevant to everyone’s situations and learning needs.

What can go wrong?

  • Participants in the outer group ignore the rules about giving good feedback in a positive manner and launch in with negative comments about the performance of those in the inner group.
  • There is too little time allowed for discussion and extracting the overall learning points of the exercise.

With thanks to Ruth Chambers, Kay Mohanna, Gill Wakley in the Midlands

en English