How to host effective group discussions online

Our top 3 (virtual) conversation formats

Mischief Makers
Mischief Magazine
Published in
6 min readSep 24, 2020


Having group discussions in a video call is now a familiar part of almost everyone's life. With #zoomfatigue running rife, we know many of you are yearning for the day where groups can be back together in a physical space. But let’s face it, virtual meetings ain't stopping any time soon. And at Mischief Makers we say… when life gives you lemons, make Limoncello. 🍋

By this we of course mean: take the things you enjoyed hosting offline and make them work online. Unsure how to do this? Here come our top 3 conversation formats that we have tried and tested in the offline as well as online space.


One of our favourite conversation formats is the Fish Bowl; and we’re in good company! This one is widely used by companies including Unicef, the NHS, the UN.

Why we love it so much?
1) It’s perfect for large groups
2) It offers depth and focus, while still being dynamic and inclusive
3) It’s super smooth and organic both on and offline! 🥳

Fishbowls are ideal for complex conversations, bouncing opinions and in particular — offering an insight into the perspective of leadership or peer thinking.

The Fishbowl conversation splits participants into two groups: the inner circle (‘Fishbowl’) and an outer circle. The Fishbowl is where the conversation takes place; it usually consists of 4–7 people. The larger outer circle surrounding the fishbowl is made up of everyone else in the group — so it can be as large as needed. These ‘outer’ people are watching the fishbowl conversation take place — listening and observing.

This format ensures there aren’t too many cooks in the kitchen. With fewer people actively involved in a conversation, they’re able to go deep, take turns more fluidly. The special trick to it is that the people in the fishbowl can choose to step out and offer their spot to anyone in the outer circle who would like to join and contribute. In this way — with the silent switching of spots- an intimate yet dynamic and inclusive conversation can take place.

Fishbowl Format

👥 In an offline environment the format is made of circles of chairs: a few in the middle are representing the fishbowl and one or more circles around are outer circle(s). Participants join or leave the conversation by standing up and switching chairs. If this does not happen organically, it is an option to enter the fishbowl by tapping the shoulder of the person that should be replaced.

🌐 In an online setting it’s just as easy, and here’s how we do it:
Camera on/off: the participants in the Fishbowl are having both their cameras and mics on. All other participants listen in and have their cameras and mics off. If a participant wants to leave they can turn off their camera & mic; another participant then gets the opportunity to join by turning their camera on.

Mic on/off: everyone has their camera turned on, but mics on mute. Only the participants in the Fishbowl have their mics turned on to lead the discussion. By turning off their mic, a spot in the fishbowl becomes free for another participant, who can join by turning on their mic.

NOTE: As facilitator/moderator of the fishbowl, make sure that people do not stay in the inner circle for too long. Let the conversation happen as long as constructive and new insights are discussed but step in if room for new people should be made.You may also need to remind and encourage people from the ‘outer circle’ to step into the free spots, by turning their camera on and joining the conversation.

Tweak it! If you want to dive into a topic around worries, fears or anxiety you might go for what we call a ‘Stinky Fishbowl”. This one is building on the Stinky Fish exercise from Hyper Island, in which participants share their worries/concerns to start a conversation and begin to confront or overcome them.


Another firm favourite is the 1–2–4-all principle from the Liberating Structures methodology. This method moves from individual thinking to duos — gradually into a collective conversation

We love this one because:
1) It accommodates moments for both introverted and extroverted participants.
2) It enables big groups to come to collective decisions quickly.
3) It’s ends in agreed tangible output.

It works as follows:

1- everyone is collecting their thoughts or ideas individually.
🌐 Ask people to grab a piece of paper and write at their desk. A nice moment to bring a physical and tactile experience to your online workshop.

2- let people exchange their thoughts in pairs.
🌐 Do this using breakout rooms, an online facilitator's best friend on Zoom and now also on MS Teams.

4- merge two pairs and let them discuss and review thoughts together.
🌐 Move one pair, into another break out room to quickly and easily merge the online groups.

ALL*- open up the conversation to the larger group.
🌐 You can facilitate this conversation by choosing a spokesperson per group, who summarizes the group's main insights or discussion points.
*If you’re working with a large group you might choose to continue doubling the group size by merging two groups — before returning to the full group (e.g: from 4 to 8 or 8 to 16).

1–2–3-ALL Format

World Café

Last but definitely not least: the World Café Format.

The perks:
1) Suitable for hosting large group conversations.
2) Power of groupthink: participants are building on each other.
3) Cover several topics in one session.

Just like in a Café, people can discuss several topics in small groups (6–10 people). Each of the different conversations is led by a facilitator, who also captures the main outcomes. People are switching from topic to topic, building upon each other’s ideas and thoughts. By setting a timer for each conversational round, the discussion keeps dynamic and efficient. After every group of people has joined every conversation topic the main insights or end-results are shared back with the whole group.

👥 Offline: people are sitting in groups at tables related to different questions/topics. You can prepare a paper table cloth for participants to write on and/or have the table’s facilitator take notes on a Flipchart. When the round is over the participants switch to the next table and build on what the previous group has worked out.

🌐 Online: participants are put into breakout rooms. To capture the ideas & thoughts use an online whiteboard (i.e. on MURAL) with a dedicated section/area for each topic where the facilitator downloads insights. The difference to the offline setup is, that the group always remains in the same break out room; only the facilitator moves and brings the specific topic to the next group.

World Café Format

Leading groups online, offline or in a mix of both?

Now that we’ve got you started with these instructions, we know you may be hungry for more. If you’re looking for guidance on how to host these or other group activities confidently or if you want to pick up more skills and techniques in this area, we’ve got you covered. 👇

You can take part in our ‘Leading Groups’ Facilitation Course. In this 8-week training you’ll gain the tools, techniques and mindset you need to design workshops, host events and manage meetings both off and online (or a combo of both (#hybrid). Boost your professional value with one of the most in demand skills for the new world of work, and enjoy yourself while doing it.

Find out more on our website or schedule a call with one of our course leaders here. We’re looking forward to meeting you!



Mischief Makers
Mischief Magazine

A facilitation agency focused on collaborative working and the power of creativity. We design workshops and programs that shake things up to unlock potential. ✨