What is it like to be in a fishbowl?
Imagine you are sitting in a circle with eight strangers at a conference. You are silent, perhaps exchanging nervous glances with other members of a group that a minute ago didn’t exist. The group leader is someone you may have heard about or know personally, but not in this role; in a way, he or she is also a stranger. The group will start in a few moments but it has already started in your head. Fantasies and projections have begun populating your mind. For reasons you might not understand, you are already feeling closer to some members and triggered by others. Perhaps many questions run through your head: Will you feel safe in this group? How will you be able to hold your personal boundaries? What role will you end up playing? Will you find a voice? Will your true feelings come out? Will you be able to connect with others? Can you trust the leader? Why on earth did you pull your chair to become part of this group?
Imagine that, on top of this, you are surrounded by 30 other people who will observe whatever unfolds in the group. You will try, perhaps successfully, to ignore their presence. They will have no voice once the group starts, but they will probably be paying close attention. While the person they came to see is the group leader, they might listen to what you say and how you say it. Can you trust that they will keep it confidential? Will they respect the boundaries? You might start feeling an invisible bond, even before the group starts, with the eight strangers in your group. After all, you all share the experience of being part of this fishbowl that will be observed for the next 90 minutes and, perhaps, for the rest of the conference.
As you imagine this you might wonder – why would anyone volunteer to do this?
What is a fishbowl group?
The demonstration group (or “fishbowl” group) is often a critical component of group therapy training, and is used in workshops, conferences, and academic programs. Gans, Rutan, and Lape (2002) describe it as a group comprised of mental health professionals or students “who volunteer to be members of a group to be led by a senior group therapist in front of an observing group of students, peers, and colleagues” (p.234).
The leader will typically discuss group agreements to provide safety and structure to the group. They normally include confidentiality, voluntary participation, and an agreement to stay for the duration of the demonstration. The group can meet for only one “session” (e.g., during a half-day workshop) or for several of them (e.g., during a multiple-day conference). After the sessions –and sometimes interspersed between them- there is some time for participants and observers to debrief. Everyone has the opportunity to talk about their experience at either side of the boundary, and the leader will share his or her reflections, observations, and process.
Gans, Rutan, and Lape (2002) propose that there are four ways to train on group psychotherapy: through lectures, supervision, observations, or experiences. The fishbowl format provides the opportunity for observational and experiential learning, depending on whether you are a part of the demo group or an observer. In my experience, however, the learning is a mix of both. As a member of the group it is hard not to observe the leader’s choices with my therapist “hat”, and as an observer I believe it is very important to pay attention to my own emotional process as it is triggered by the group.
Being a fish
I have volunteered to be part of the fishbowl a few times, most of them at conferences of the Illinois Group Psychotherapy Society and the American Group Psychotherapy Association, and mostly in psychodynamically-oriented process groups. I have experienced, on more than one occasion, the thoughts and feelings I described at the beginning of this article. While my experiences have been varied, there are a couple of themes I can recognize.
First of all, I have felt self-aware and self-conscious due to the almost unavoidable dual relationships that exist in this kind of experience. Colleagues I knew from before, and have had some kind of relationship with, were now also in the role of fellow fishbowl members and/or observers. I have experienced the ways in which Pepper (2007) suggests dual relationships might undermine group processes, such as informing and distorting transference, avoiding scrutiny and confrontation, or bringing up material from the “outside.” In addition, I have sometimes found it more challenging to be authentic in two ways. First, how much I wanted to share about my history, my life experiences, and my struggles, as they were brought to awareness during the group. Secondly, how open I wanted to be about the feelings I had toward other group members, whether they were feelings of closeness, desire, or rage. Consciously or not, I kept in mind what the observers, particularly those I knew, would think about me. Will they think I’m an asshole because I lashed out at X? Will they think I’m a caring person if I am compassionate to Y?
A second related theme includes vulnerability, safety, and confidentiality. As mentioned above, the presence of silent observers has felt constraining at times, due to the dual relationships in the room. The issue of safety is also embedded in those constraints (e.g., how will something I say impact an existing relationship? Will my privacy be safe?). Some people might also be concerned about safety in terms of the impact the experience may have on the participants, and whether they would get a chance to debrief and process. Regarding confidentiality, it is clear to me that it cannot be guaranteed, even though there is typically an explicit agreement about it before starting the group. What I’ve tried to do in the past is choosing to trust and think about my own boundaries in advance.
There have been several reasons behind my decision to join fishbowl groups. The first time I did it was at an IGPS conference, and I was probably just trying to be daring. I had recently started grad school (where, unfortunately, we didn’t do any demo groups) and, encouraged by someone who attended that event with me, I jumped into the fishbowl.
I realized it was a bit more difficult to be in the observer role because I might get distracted, not be able to hear everything, feel frustrated because I am not supposed to talk, or have a hard time with my own feelings about being an outsider. In some instances, I was probably motivated by the “performance” aspect of it and by a wish to get out of my comfort zone.
While I definitely find a lot of value in observation as a training tool, as time went by I became a big believer in experiential learning (fishbowls being only one of several different formats that allow for this). Much like I can learn about my patients through the feelings they trigger (i.e., using my own countertransference), I believe I can learn a lot about a group leader through my reactions toward him or her, particularly if I can voice them and process them during the group.
Gans, J. S., Rutan, J. S., & Lape, E. (2002). The demonstration group: A tool for observing group process and leadership style. International Journal of Group Psychotherapy, 52(2), 233-252.
Pepper, R. (2007). Too close for comfort: The impact of dual relationships on group therapy and group therapy training. International Journal of Group Psychotherapy, 57(1), 13-24.