Three Tips for Facilitating Group Discussions


Most of us have had to suffer through a “discussion” occurring in the presence of a large number of people, most of whom never get an opportunity to speak. Here are three tips for creating an effective focused discussion with a group.

1. Use a fishbowl
A fishbowl provides a simple, ingenious process for focused discussion.

The advantage of a focused discussion over informal discussion is that it greatly reduces the cross-conversations that frequently occur when many people want to respond or comment on something that’s been said. And it manages this feat without limiting discussion to a few voluble people, as it provides all attendees an equal opportunity to contribute.

The term “fishbowl” can refer to a couple of different techniques for focused group discussion. In this post I’ll describe what I call the standard fishbowl design, which supplies focus by assuring that the conversation at any moment is restricted to a few clearly defined people while still allowing others to join the discussion in a controlled manner whenever they have something to say.

A standard fishbowl requires a chair for each participant, with chairs set in one of the two layouts, horseshoe or circle, shown in the diagrams below. See the second tip to decide which layout to use.

The number of chairs in the mouth of the horseshoe or the center of the circle is typically four or five. The fishbowl facilitator sits in one of these chairs for the duration of the fishbowl.

[one_half] [/one_half] [one_half_last] [/one_half_last]

At the start of the fishbowl, the facilitator sits alone in the small group of chairs. She explains how the fishbowl works by saying something like this:

“We’re about to start a focused discussion using a fishbowl. A fishbowl is a facilitated informal discussion, with the difference that, if you want to talk, you must come and sit in one of these chairs next to me. If all these chairs are full and no one has yet spoken, wait a little—otherwise, when you come up, someone sitting here must go back to a chair in the [horseshoe/outer circle]. Also, if you’re sitting up here and have finished what you have to say, go back to a [horseshoe/outer circle] chair. When you’re up here, you can talk to someone else in these chairs or the whole group—the choice is yours.


Any questions?


[Pause for questions.]


The discussion is now open. Who would like to start?”

To read the rest of this post, please go to Conferences That Work. Posted with the permission of and special thanks to Adrian Segar.

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About the Author

Adrian Segar is a former elementary particle physicist who has organized and facilitated conferences for over 30 years. Dissatisfied with traditional conferences, and realizing that he loved to connect with people and to create spaces for them to connect with each other, he created the first peer conference in 1992, and has been refining Conferences That Work process ever since.

Adrian is an acknowledged innovator and speaker on participant-led event design, and facilitates two popular opening and closing plenaries—The Solution Room and A Personal Retrospective—at many different conferences. He has presented at Meeting Professionals International’s World Education Congress, EIBTM, MPI Chapter meetings, the MPI Chapter Business Summit, HSMAI MEET, and GMIC & NESAE annual conferences. Adrian is the community manager for the weekly #eventprofs Twitter chat. He is a proponent of and presenter at EventCamps—volunteer-run, innovative, experimental conferences for event professionals—and has organized and facilitated two in Philadelphia and Washington, DC.

In 2011, BizBash Magazine named Adrian as one of “The 68 Most Innovative Event Professionals”.

Adrian’s next book, to be published in 2013, will be on participation techniques you can use to enhance your meeting sessions.

In 1973, Adrian earned a Physics B.A. as Postmaster at Merton College, Oxford. At the age of 25, Adrian was awarded a Ph.D. in elementary particle physics from University College, London. 37 years later, the experiment he worked on was awarded the 2009 European Physics Prize. From 1978-1983 Adrian owned and managed Solar Alternative, a solar energy manufacturing company. He also taught college level computer science at Marlboro College for ten years, and was an independent information technology consultant between 1983-2007.

Adrian lives in Marlboro, Vermont, is the founder and president of two nonprofits, and loves to sing and dance.

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