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  • Use when looking for definitions of abstract terms.

  • This is a facilitation technique

  • Can be used as a stand alone tool.

What and Why?

The taboo technique is an effective facilitation technique that encourages participants to think beyond their initial associations and explore different perspectives. To use the taboo technique, participants are asked to list their initial associations or ideas related to the concept being discussed. Once these initial responses are collected, they are declared "taboo," meaning they cannot be used in the subsequent discussions to describe the concept. This restriction encourages participants to think more deeply and consider alternative viewpoints.

With the taboo associations set aside, the group collaborates to generate a definition or description of the concept that excludes the initially listed associations. This process stimulates creative thinking and encourages participants to explore different aspects of the concept, potentially leading to a more comprehensive and nuanced understanding.

By avoiding the use of jargon and pushing past the obvious or clichéd associations, the taboo technique helps participants generate fresh insights and arrive at a more refined understanding of the concept under discussion. It can be particularly useful for abstract concepts that are difficult to define precisely, as it encourages participants to think more critically and express their thoughts in clearer, more accessible language.

Use this tool if you want to:

  • Enhance understanding: The taboo technique deepens comprehension by pushing participants beyond initial associations.

  • Spark creativity: It stimulates innovative thinking and alternative perspectives.

  • Foster collaboration: Participants work together to generate descriptions free from taboo associations.

  • Promote clarity: Jargon-free language improves communication and accessibility.

  • Improve problem-solving: It aids in tackling complex problems through critical analysis of underlying concepts.

Facilitation Elements

A. Sequence of Steps and Time Allocation (30 minutes)

5 mins

  1. Introduce the word or concept that you wish to define or describe.

  2. Invite each participant to list 5 words or short phrases that they associate with the concept you are exploring.

  3. Ask them to list these on post-it notes - one post-it for each association.

15 mins

  1. Divide the group into small groups of 4 participants each.

  2. Invite the participants to share and compare the associations they generated with the associations the other people in their group generated. (~2 mins).

  3. Ask if there are many overlaps. Or if there were mostly unique associations.

  4. Now instruct the small groups to collaborate to craft a definition for the abstract concept. Tell them that you have decided to make the task slightly more challenging. Their challenge is to create a definition WITHOUT using any of the associations that have been listed on the post-its generated by any member of their small group. In essence all of their first associations are now taboo.

  5. Distribute some sheets of paper for the group to work on as they create their definition.

  6. Distribute a large sheet of paper and a flipchart marker to each group for transcribing their final definition.

~ 5 mins

Invite each team to appoint a speaker to read out their definition to the group at large.

4 mins

Debrief the activity:

Invite the group to share what they experienced as a result of using this technique

  • What did you observe or experience as a result of using this technique?

  • What insights did you have?

  • Can you see yourself using this technique? How?

B. How Groups Are Configured

  • This activity can be done with a group of any size.

  • Divide the large group into smaller groups of 4.

  • If there are more than 5 small groups, modify the report back and instead collect the definitions and post them on a wall for others to see.

C. How Space Is Arranged and Materials Needed

  • Unlimited number of groups

  • Seating for small groups of 4

  • Post-its

  • Sharpie markers

  • Paper for working on drafts

  • Flip chart paper or (11 X17) paper for transcribing definitions

  • Flip chart pens

Tips and Watchouts

  • Emphasize that the goal is to explore and expand understanding, not to critique or dismiss initial associations.

  • Encourage active engagement and collaboration among participants. Prompt them to build upon each other's ideas and develop a collective understanding.

  • Emphasize clarity and simplicity: Encourage participants to express their thoughts using clear and accessible language. Prompt them to avoid jargon and focus on concise descriptions that represent the essence of the associations they had listed.

Riffs and Variations

  • A possible build on this activity can be created by collecting all the post-its with the initial association and clustering them to discover emergent themes. You might then allocate a theme to a small group of 5 participants and ask them to create a presentation that explores just that element of the concept. For example when listing associations related to the concept of “creativity” - the emergent themes generally include references to:

  • creative attributes,

  • creative processes, and

  • creative outcomes.

You could ask a small group to unpack creative attributes, another to unpack the creative process, and a third to unpack creative outcomes.


The Taboo technique was developed by Ismet Mamnoon at the CREA Conference in 2013.


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