Stinky fish

Tackling fears and anxieties head-on

From time to time, when preparing a session, you will realise there will be unspoken fears and anxieties in the room – either because one of the team pointed towards it, or because you read between the lines. The proverbial elephant in the room. It might be difficult to turn it into a conversation while having the participants feel comportable. Stinky fish can help.

It is a short activity to run early in a session or program, focused on sharing fears, anxieties and uncertainties related to the program theme. The purpose is to create openness within a group. The stinky fish is a metaphor for “that thing that you carry around but don’t like to talk about; but the longer you hide it, the stinkier it gets”. By putting the stinky fish (fears and anxieties) on the table, participants begin to relate to each other, become more comfortable sharing, and identify a clear area for development and learning – something you can build on later.

Stinky fish

Purpose

Time frame

Group size

5-50

Facilitation level

Comfort level participants

Materials needed

Printed A4 papers with a large outline of a fish

Credits

Five Structural Elements for Stinky fish

The stinky fish is a straightforward exercise, but requires some preparation in the form of pre-printed A4 papers with a fish on it. Also, make sure to create a safe environment for people to share.

Five structural elements

How to read the instructions

To bring some structure to tools and excercises, I borrowed the “five structural elements” from Liberating Structures. It is an easy and structured way to describe the different dimensions of an exercise.

More on the elementsHire me as facilitator
Invitation

Introduce the purpose of the exercise in your own words. Explain that the purpose is to explore and share our individual worries/concerns about the future as a way to start a conversation and begin to confront or overcome them.

How Space Is Arranged and Materials Needed

There are three parts to the exercise:

  • Introduction: for your introduction, it makes sense to create a circle of chairs, where everyone can see each other. Here you’ll need a pre-printed A4 of a fish, which will allow people to write down some of their thoughts.
  • Writing down the stinky fish: when writing down, many people will appreciate some privacy, so allow people to find a quiet spot in the room.
  • Sharing the stinky fish: this is best done either in a circle of chairs again or in a circle standing up (especially when you’ll be putting up the stinky fish on the wall later on).
Sequence of Steps and Time Allocation
  1. Hand out one Stinky Fish template to each participant. Explain the metaphor of the Stinky Fish: “The Stinky Fish that thing that you carry around but don’t like to talk about; but the longer you hide it, the stinkier it gets. It’s a metaphor for a fear or anxiety; something that will only get worse if you don’t acknowledge and deal with it.”
  2. Give participants around 5 minutes to write down their personal stinky fish for the context of the program. They should write only a few words or a phrase inside the body of the fish.
  3. Once all participants have written their stinky fish, invite the group back, sit in a circle, and have each participant share their fish to the rest of the group. Ask participants to share one at a time, for 30 to 60 seconds each. Continue until all participants have shared.
  4. Wrap-up the exercise by thanking participants and reminding them that in the rapidly-changing world, uncertainty and worry about the future are totally normal. Explain that “putting fish on the table” is an important first step to confronting and dealing with worries and fears. If relevant, explain that elements of the program to follow will offer the chance to further explore some of these stinky fish.

Optionally, put all the stinky fish up on the wall as a kind of gallery. It can be useful to come back to them later in a program to refer back to some of the fears and anxieties that were brought up at the beginning.

How Groups Are Configured

No special configuration needed.

How Participation Is Distributed

Everyone participates and has equal value.

Make sure people feel safe, especially when there are different ranks and management layers in the room.

Additional tips and pointers
  • As a facilitator, the key challenge is to make people feel safe to share. Be welcoming, open, caring in your introduction and have people feel their opinions are taken seriously and that sharign their fears and anxieties will help later on in the session.

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Polle de Maagt

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