All Is About The Fishbowl


We know that the best designs embody empathy for those we’re designing for. Human-Centred Design practices go further and put empathy right at the center of their methods. With empathy, we solve actual problems for real people. When we understand those people who have to live with our decisions, we also create the opportunity for delight.


Empathy, unlike data, is not readily transferable. If I describe my observations about someone else’s experience to you, you may intellectually understand what happened to them, but you will be emotionally disconnected from that experience. This is one of the reasons surveys don’t always give us the insight we hope they might. We see the scores and read their verbatim feedback, but it remains hard for us to connect to their felt experience.


There are many methods for fostering empathy amongst a participant group within a workshop. One powerful technique is affectionately known as a Fishbowl Conversation.


Before the workshop

To run a Fishbowl Conversation, you will need to find 4–6 people who are affected by the issues being discussed in the workshop and are willing to share those with your participant group. These people might be your colleagues, your customers, or even other participants.


You will need these people in the workshop for approximately 30-minutes.


You will also need to work through some questions for the Fishbowl Conversation. Three to four open questions about their experience is usually enough. Something like this:


What is good about ‘the situation’?

Where could ‘the situation’ be improved?

When is ‘the situation’ at its best/worst?


I ask the Fishbowl Conversation participants to think about the questions beforehand, but not to discuss them with anybody else. I want to keep the actual conversation as spontaneous as I can.


When the Fishbowl Conversation participants arrive, seat them in the inner circle, introduce them, and the questions they’ll be discussing. Reinforce that they will be having a conversation, and the rest of us will be listening.


That’s right. It’s not a panel. The rest of the group does not participate in the Fishbowl Conversation?.


At first, this may feel a little awkward. However, within a few moments, the Fishbowl Conversation participants will quickly forget that the rest of the group is there. This has proven true for participant groups of 15 as it has for a group of 120.


When their 30 minutes is over, the Fishbowl Conversation participants will return to their day.


If you’ve chosen your Fish Bowl participants well, you’ll hear the raw emotion of their experiences. Your workshop participants will hear the frustration, the pain, and the delight of the people affected by the decisions they make.


The power of the Fishbowl Conversation is in witnessing an emotional reaction and not having the immediate chance to respond. As they sit observing the Fishbowl Conversation, the workshop participants are forced to hear the emotion. It is in that experience that empathy develops.


As straightforward as they are, there are some additional considerations for running a Fishbowl Conversation.



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