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Using The Fishbowl Discussion Format For Engaging Online Workshops

Keeping your online workshop participants engaged throughout the session can be a challenge, especially when you feel like it’s hard to run the kinds of activities you’re used to running in face-to-face workshops. There are a lot of things you can do to boost your participants’ engagement, but here I’d like to share with you one that is often overlooked: the fishbowl discussion format.

What Is The Fishbowl Discussion Format?

Fishbowl discussions are named after the arrangement of the participants, where a small group will be engaged in a discussion in the middle of the room, and all the other participants will be gathered around them observing from the outside.

In an online setting, the fishbowl discussion format means having a small group of participants prominently displayed in the middle of everyones’ screens, so that everyone can closely observe their discussion.

What Can I Use The Fishbowl Discussion Format For?

The fishbowl discussion format is a versatile and powerful tool for online workshops and training sessions, particularly for running role playing activities, experiential learning activities, and energizers.

Role Playing Activities

Role playing is one of the most effective techniques for actively training soft skills. In a role playing activity, learners take on different roles in a fictional scenario to practice the techniques they’ve been taught, and receive feedback and guidance from the instructor. Conducting role plays in a fishbowl setting lets the rest of the learners in the workshop observe the group doing the role play, benefit from the feedback the instructor gives on the group’s performance, and even give feedback and observations of their own. The fishbowl format is perfect for conducting role plays and practicing new techniques in the following fields:

  • Sales

  • Negotiation

  • Mediation

  • Counselling

  • Coaching

  • Empathic Listening


Games are a great way to break the ice at the beginning of a workshop, inject some energy into an otherwise passive session, or even illustrate an important point you’ve made (especially if you’re using Game Theory to teach negotiation or strategy). Luckily, many games are as fun to watch as they are to play, making it easy to engage your entire audience while managing just a few participants in a fishbowl setting. Here are a few great examples:

The Ultimatum Game

This simple two-player game gives everyone a peek at the players’ moral compass. Player A has ten dollars, and needs to propose how much to give to Player B while keeping the rest. The trick is, Player B needs to accept the proposal, or else neither player gets anything. How far can Player A push their luck (or greed!) before Player B punishes them by sinking the deal?

The Price is Right

Which workshop participant is the more savvy customer? In this game, players try to guess the price of different items, and the player with the most accurate estimate wins.

Two Truths and a Lie

This classic game is part icebreaker and part lie detector test. Each player tells two truths about themself, and one convincing lie. Players that successfully pass off their lie as the truth win.

Planning to have all your participants play a game in their breakout groups instead? Playing one or two rounds together as a group, using the fishbowl format, can be a great way to make sure everyone understands the rules before splitting participants into their breakout groups.

Impromptu Discussions

Sometimes, in the course of a workshop session, two or more participants will get into an interesting back-and-forth discussion. It’s easy for everyone in a face-to-face workshop to watch and benefit from these kinds of spontaneous discussions… but this can be a little harder in an online setting. Highlighting these participants in a fishbowl setting once the intellectual sparks start flying makes it much easier for everyone to stay engaged in the exchange.

Tools That Allow You To Set Up Fishbowl Discussions


Seshboard is a live online training and workshop facilitation platform designed with the specific needs of trainers and facilitators in mind. Seshboard streamlines the process of starting a fishbowl discussion by letting hosts and co-hosts spotlight entire table-groups and the stage. This makes it especially easy to debrief together as a group after breakout sessions, as you can spotlight each table while they're sharing the outcome of their breakout discussion with the room. To learn more, consider booking a personal demo with us.


Zoom hosts have been able to use the fishbowl discussion format since September 1, 2020, when Zoom rolled out its Spotlight feature. Here are the steps to set up a fishbowl discussion in Zoom:

  1. Hover over the participant you want to add to the fishbowl

  2. Select “Spotlight for Everyone”

  3. Repeat, until you have added all the participants you want to the fishbowl

One thing to note about this feature is that participants on Zoom need to be added to the fishbowl one by one, which means your participants will be watching you build your fishbowl group in real time, and it may be a challenge to spotlight everyone from a given breakout group in larger workshops.


The fishbowl discussion format is a great tool to make your online workshop sessions more impactful and engaging.

Interested in learning more about how to maximize your participants' engagement during online workshops? Check out the other articles in our Guide to Online Engagement.


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