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The main problem with the adversarial, personal quality of debates is that it encourages debaters to use rhetorical devices instead of substance to win points in their battle. However, such experts can be nudged into more creative communication (real dialogue) with a process called "fishbowl."

The hallmark of fishbowl is that you have several people representing Side A talking together while those from Side B (and partisans from other Sides, if you have them -- plus some ordinary folks) sit in the audience watching the Side A experts talk "in the fishbowl". This is often done in a circle format, with a small circle of chairs (the fishbowl) surrounded by one or more larger rows of chairs for the audience.

After a set period of time (15-45 minutes), the Side A folks move into the audience and are replaced "in the fishbowl" by the Side B folks, who talk among themselves while the rest (including the Side A experts) watch.

In its simplest form, you just switch back and forth between the two Sides -- each Side having equal time -- for however long you have for the whole event. Further "Sides" (viewpoints) can be added into the sequence, as long as every Side gets a fair share of the time. If you were to do a fishbowl using the topic you've chosen here for your debate, I would leave it with just Side A (Major Change) and Side B (Minor Glitch). But I would add a fishbowl each round for some of the ordinary folks in the audience to go into the middle and discuss what they've heard and not heard from the experts, while the experts watch. This is the fishbowl equivalent of a "questions from the audience" period, except that questions aren't being collected or answered, per se. There's just a discussion among the ordinary folks. In subsequent rounds, the experts can pick up on themes raised by the public, or not. In any case, the public concerns are out there in the open for everyone to see.

A possible Y2K fishbowl event might look like this:

Round One:

Round Two [reverse initial order of A and B]:

Round Three [flip a coin for who -- A or B -- goes first]

That would be 2 1/4 hours of dialogue, plus perhaps 20-30 minutes for introductions, instructions and switchings. If it were videotaped and later edited down to 30-60 minutes, it would probably be a powerfully clarifying discussion tool for Y2K groups and activities around the country. If this were done every couple of months and/or on different aspects of the Y2K problem, it would be VERY useful.

Why is fishbowl more productive than debate? The small group conversations in the fishbowl tend to de-personalize the issue and reduce the stress level, making people's statements more cogent. Since people are talking with their fellow partisans, they get less caught up in wasteful adversarial games. Each side can be encouraged to spend their brief time together providing the audience with evidence and logic to support their main points, in light of what the other side has said -- all of which benefits the audience. Furthermore, real dialogue among same-side partisans often reveals significant differences among them -- or other facets and nuances of the issue usually hidden by the position-solidifying adversarial heroics of a debate. (All these benefits are more likely to accrue if the dialogue is facilitated, and if the facilitation is done well. But even a fishbowl done with little or no facilitation will usually provide an audience with greater understanding than they'll get through a debate, for the reasons given above.)

In a debate, the point is for one side to win. In a dialogue such as fishbowl, the point is to clarify what the issues and evidence are -- and perhaps along the way to discover new perspectives, understandings and options that may not have occurred to anyone earlier. When dialogue in any form goes well, people's positions tend to soften or break down, and are replaced by greater understanding.


Tom Atlee

From: Jim Rough <>


The fishbowl I'm familiar with would be to set up 10 chairs in the middle of the room and have everyone else on the outside. Have 3 of the chairs be people from one side of the issue and the same number from the other side. The remaining chairs are open for anyone to come sit in ... with the understanding that they stay only a short period of time.

Then a facilitator helps the fishbowl group wrestle with the issue in a "choice-creating" process. The group seeks consensus by achieving a transformation of the issue. Even if they don't achieve this, the way of talking is again totally different and has a healing impact on all.

See also Mediated Dialogue.