Smelly fish

60-120 min
Level of difficulty
Printed A4 papers with a large outline of a fish

When to use this exercise

This short activity can be run at the start of a workshop or meeting. It focuses on fears, anxieties and uncertainties related to the topic at hand.


The purpose of the exercise is to create an openness within a group of people. The smelly fish is a metaphor for "a thing that you carry around but do not like to talk about, but the longer you hide it, the smellier it gets." By putting smelly fish (fears and anxieties) on the table, people begin to relate to each other, become more comfortable sharing, and identify a clear area for development and learning.


  1. First introduce the purpose of the exercise in your own words to the group taking part in the exercise. 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. Hand out one Smelly Fish template to each participant. Explain the metaphor of the Smelly Fish: “The Smelly Fish is that thing that you carry around but do not like to talk about, but the longer you hide it, the smellier 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 people around 5 minutes to write down their personal smelly fish for the context of the agenda. For example, if the context is leadership development, the smelly fish could be about fears and anxieties related to being a leader. If the context is an organisational change workshop, the smelly fish would be about fears and anxieties related to change in our organisation. They should only write a few words or a phrase inside the body of the fish.
  3. Once everyone has written their smelly fish, invite the group back, sit in a circle, and have each person share their fish with the rest of the group, one at a time for 30 to 60 seconds each. Continue until everyone has shared.

    Put all the smelly fish up on the wall as a gallery. It can be useful to come back to them later in the day to refer back to some of the fears and anxieties that were brought up at the beginning.
  4. Wrap-up the exercise by thanking everyone and reminding them that in the rapidly-changing world, uncertainty and worry about the future are totally normal. Explain that "putting the fish on the table" is an important first step to confronting and dealing with worries and fears. If relevant, explain that elements of the activities/agenda at hand, will offer the chance to further explore some of these smelly fish later.

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Michael Röllich
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