Of goldfish bowls, being kind, and being appreciated…

Times are tough. Today I did something I’m proud of, something that helped other people in a couple of ways. This is a blog about that.

As part of The Job, (a very good job, one I am grateful to have), I am doing a bit of seminar-conducting. One problem with seminars is that either

a) you’re “leading” them and people are expecting you to do all the talking while they sit there and give short answers to questions (Wilfred Bion would tell you all about this).


b) you are expecting a conversation but in an unstructured situation it is those with most confidence (justified or otherwise) in the worth and sophistication of their opinions who do most of the talking. Efforts to encourage/chivvy quieter people into speaking can rapidly tip over into cajoling/coercion.

But, thank goodness, there is a third way – or rather, there are a lot of techniques available, if you’re willing/able to de-centre yourself from talking/cajoling, and open discursive spaces for others…

So, today the students (mostly Masters’ students, I think) got the joy of… the goldfish bowl.

But before I got them to do this (which I will explain in a moment), I tried to communicate something. Here’s roughly what I said

“Hi all,

before we begin, I just want to say, that if you’re struggling, don’t beat yourself up about that. And seek help through the mechanisms available. This is really really difficult. I’m an old fart, and so’s my wife, and we talk about just how hard it is for young people. We had fear of nuclear war and the awareness of eventual climate change. But you guys have got that, AND social media, AND covid, AND the interruption to your education and everything else. So please, try to be kind to yourselves and each other. This is really really tough at the moment.”

So, then we did the goldfish bowl thing.

I explained that there would be four chairs, facing in an x shape, in the middle of the room and that only the four people sat there could speak, but that everyone in the room would listen intently. If someone wanted to speak, they should go and stand behind one of the people, perhaps whoever had been there longest.

Nobody had done it before, and nobody had any experience of debating at school.

I then broke the 16 people into three groups, so they weren’t with the person they were sat next to.

Each group was tasked first with introducing themselves (assuming they didn’t know each other very well), talking among themselves and swapping survival tips. Then they were to talk about one of the three ‘debating’ points, and split into two subgroups to prepare their talking points and to anticipate the other side of the debates talking points and think up rebuttals. I told them they had half an hour to do all this. During this time I sat in a corner, but also was available to answer questions as best I could.

Only one of the three groups split into two, and so I decided to start with them.

Four of the six people in that group started off. I reminded everyone of the rules, and encouraged those sat in the centre to start with their names and whether they supported or opposed the proposition.

Initially the conversation/debate was a little uneasy/stilted. It was, to be fair, an alien thing for people. But they started to get into it, the conversation flowing, ebbing, flowing. It was important to resist the temptation to interrupt, to “correct” anyone.

One of them mentioned “regulatory capture” and at that point I paused the discussion to make sure everyone in the room knew what that meant (I asked for – and got – a volunteer to give an explanation, which was good, and then added my own semi-accurate analogy- “if you’re playing Monopoly, and you’re the banker, and you give yourself more money and other people less than they should, then over time, you’re probably going to win the game.”)

I let it run a bit more, some people were beginning to substitute in, understandably self-consciously at first. Everyone in the circle around did seem to be paying attention closely.

I briefly entered the goldfish bowl as a participant, to make a couple of forceful/provocative statements, but then asked someone to replace me straight away. It injected a little bit more energy, I think.

After another few minutes, because there were two more groups, I called it to an end. I asked for a round of applause for those who had been in the goldfish bowl, and for everyone else who had clearly been watching.

The second group then sat down, and it was clear that they had benefited from watching the first group. The conversation was livelier, more opinionated. Everyone’s manners were excellent though – if people began to talk over each other, they stopped themselves. They actively listened to each other, and tried to rebut each other’s points. People started to substitute in a bit more freely.

The third group was also very good. By the end I felt we could easily have gone on another ten or fifteen minutes. People were “finding their voice”, disagreeing, but doing so respectfully, pointing to examples in their reading, in the lectures.

I wrapped up by thanking them all for having engaged with the goldfish bowl technique so well, saying that they’d all been kind to each other.

I pointed them to the way the word “we” can hide who “we” is – so often it being rich white people (and male). I suggested the concept of the “Imperial Way of Living” as a way of thinking about the norms of consumption, leisure and reliable sources of energy, information etc.

I encouraged them, if they are ever TAing, to think about the goldfish bowl as one technique, but only if the participants are “warmed up” first.

I closed by reminding them of what I had said at the outset – about being kind to themselves.

So, by definition, every single person there was an active participant, but nobody got to dominate. I exerted authority, but not – I think – domination. It was about opening a space, with rules, and then getting everyone to be more or less comfortable in occupying it.

The coda – one of the students came by my office later, spontaneously, and said that after I’d left they’d had a short discussion about what I had said. She wanted to pass on thanks about flagging that awareness of the emotional toughness of the times. Properly made my day, that did.

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