Dialogue with hot topics in the Fish Bowl

A facilitation method for hot topics and transforming the field of collaboration.

What is this method?

This method provides a transparent and open dialogue space to work on hot topics that are influencing a community. The fish bowl form as the name implies, has a moderated inner circle with 4-5 chairs supported by an observant larger circle that supports it. The double circle form provides a strong safe space for deeper transformative work on a topic that is keeping a system or group stuck often because of polarities or characteristics that are disturbing the collective learning potential. The inner circle holds the conversation with the facilitator guiding the speed and intensity of the spoken exchange while helping the actors to go deeper into the root causes of the tensions in the conversation. The larger circle supports the dialogue with full attention as a silent council in the first phase. 

Why use this method?

The intention is to provide a safe container as an open space to work though topics that create tension in individuals, the group and are perhaps symptoms of deeper societal challenges. The process is fitting in the middle of a dialogue session to deepen and manage a disruptive challenge. The challenge of a hot topic is three fold. They are emotionally and socially challenging for some individuals. They may be expressing latent transactional behaviors or agendas that hi-jack the attention of the group and therefore are a significant burden to the organisation. In the course of a dialogue session, once a hot topic emerges and causes social fragmentation and emotional confusion, it is present even if the source had departed. That means that the element or person is still representing an unresolved issue that will continue to disturb the groups collective awareness, reduce intelligence as well as take a lot of energy in further works. 

The Process

Place five chairs in the center of the group circle. Either create the hot question together before hand or present a question that invokes the tension that is present. This will enable contributors to find a “this too is in me” opening to meet and represent a social and emotional challenge. Once everyone is ready in the inner and outer, the facilitator reminds the inner circle about listening with empathy and full presence, speaking from the “I” without referencing others “identities” and speaking to the middle when tensions arise. Stating the intention of responsibility to the group is important throughout Dialogue process.

1. The dialogue opens with a founding question and naming the challenge. The question should come from the group for full presence and authentic engagement. 

2. Than using the council method and a talking stick the field is opened and supported by both circles. The process can deepen understanding across tension filled unrelated beliefs and by staying with held tensions between held beliefs, escape tactics and surfacing traumas, new possibilities and generative new stories begin to fill the space.

3. A “talking stick” will help hold the order and promote slowing down and consideration, while allowing contributors to take a risk and practice empathy even when dwelling in their different viewpoints and beliefs. Each person has the chance to speak or pass until the next round.

4. After two rounds the facilitator can pose a focusing question that can promote generative insights. An alternative may be to ask the group to create a new story around the topic that reframes the challenge and opens common understanding.

5. When the challenge has founded a relatedness in the assembled group, hopefully in 20-30 Min. then the facilitator closes the inner dialogue and opens the dialogue with the larger circle of space holders. They may be invited to switch places to the hot seats in the inner circle.

6. The outer circle space holders do not critique or comment as if they are also engaging in the topic but instead speak about what they observed as coming from the discourse in the centre. They have witnessed a process of learning by the inner circle and are there to provide a meta level picture of what happened in terms of behaviours, tensions, transactions and blockages contained and released and to testify to any re-solutions  that had been allowed to happen and where potentially embodied by the inner circle members.

The closing and next steps

The fishbowl may end with sharing a silent minute of appreciation in the full circle. Perhaps it is good to follow it with five minutes of journaling so that people can capture their thoughts and reflections. If individuals seem to be holding on to the roles which they contributed, then it is a good practice to perform a short ritual of letting go of the role they took. For instance, they can lay it with a gesture in the centre and shake the weight out of their arms after as a release from the role they embodied.

I think it is best followed by an element that allows processing, expressions and harvesting by the group. Be aware of residual tensions still held by participants.

A simple description of the Fishbowl method, you find here.

Photo by Sarah Brown on Unsplash