Zoom =

Fishbowl on Zoom

Choose a few talkers, spotlight them, and ask the rest of the group to mute their mics and turn off their cameras. Provide the group with a theme or prompt, and let the small group converse for an allotted amount of time. Swap in different talkers, repeat.

Step-by-Step Instructions

  1. Decide who will start “in the fishbowl,” being observed by everyone else. Name a few people randomly, or select a subgroup based on a common identifier (e.g., roles, titles, traits), to be the talkers.
  2. Spotlight the participants who will be talking. Instruct everyone who isn’t chosen to talk to mute their mics and hide their cameras. Ask them to observe the talkers, listening closely, and giving them 100% focus.
  3. Provide the group with a central question, prompt, or theme for their discussion. And tell them how much time you’re allotting (e.g., “You’ll have seven minutes.”).
  4. When the time is up, assign new people to be talkers, unmuting their mics and enabling their cameras to be spotlighted, while the previous talkers go dark and transition into listening.
  5. You can provide the new group in the fishbowl with a related central question or topic, or allow them to continue the conversation about the same one. Tell them how much time they have, instruct everyone else to listen.
  6. Repeat as many times as you’d like, or for as long as new dimensions of the topic are being explored.


Spend time crafting the prompt to make sure that it has enough substance to generate a fishbowl-worthy discussion.


Five to seven participants in the fishbowl, regardless of how large your group is overall, is a sweet spot. The Zoom Spotlight feature supports up to nine, so you can go that high without altering the activity.

Less facilitation here is more ideal, allowing the participants in the fishbowl to have as free-flowing a discussion as possible. But on Zoom this is a little bit more difficult than in-person, because the body language cues and other non-verbals people use to chime in and out aren't available. With that in mind, pop in as the facilitator to invite more varied participation (e.g., if one person is doing all the talking), or to remind the group of the prompt if they go too far astray.

Substituting Apps

If you're using apps other than Zoom, here are the specific things your software will need to be able to do:

Zoom lets you spotlight some participants while others can mute and disable their cameras.


Author HeadshotAustin, TX

Activity by Sam Killermann

Co-developer of Facilitator Cards and co-author of Unlocking the Magic of Facilitation. Longtime facilitator of gender/sexuality education.

Tested & Tweaked by Meg BolgerRachael

Meg Bolger

Meg Bolger:

I was preparing a group of high school students to be facilitators. I wanted to be able to demonstrate what they should do in their breakout rooms so I used the fishbowl to create a "small group" in order to demonstrate how to lead a conversation.

It worked really well to create a feeling of a small group conversation while still being in front of the full group. It allowed me to focus in on just those people in the conversation and not take in so much information with 20+ faces on screen.

One thing I was glad that I did was have participants publicly volunteer to be in the fishbowl before I started spotlighting them. The time between when you start spotlighting people and finish spotlighting everyone is awkward so good to keep that short.



A group of 18 of us were processing assigned readings in a graduate school Zoom class. The goal was to include more voices in the discussion because in past weeks some people felt like it was hard to get their voice heard.

The Fishbowl worked. More people were able to talk and contribute instead of the usual talkers. It also allowed people to question and respond to each other instead of the usual conversation flow where people say their opinion then sit back and watch for a while. People on the outside commented afterwards that they liked that they were able to actively listen instead of constructing responses in their heads.

However, one of our group agreements is the ability to pass, and some people felt like while they were in the fishbowl they were pressured into ignoring that and participating even though they would have rather not.

We didn't use the Zoom spotlight feature but instead just had people turn their cameras on or off. One facilitator would message 2 people every 5 minutes or so to turn their camera on, and message 2 other people to turn their camera off.