How to Use Triads to Improve Your Personal Relationships
Trios > duos.
I recently read the NY Times bestseller Tribal Leadership.
I found the whole book mind-blowing, but there was one little detail that grabbed my attention the most. It was this tip:
“Next time you go to Starbucks, take two friends, not one.”
Curious why? We’ll get there in a moment. But first, some context.
Trust, Success, and Triads
Tribal Leadership, written by Dave Logan, John King, and Halee Fischer Wright, exposes one of the major reasons that 24% of American organizations successfully stand out from the rest: triadic relationships.
Most corporate cultures are based on “hub and spoke” dyadic relationships. People in these cultures communicate mostly one-on-one, and they are protective of their individual relationships. Leaders and employees struggle to delegate tasks and to give up control. This is ultimately counterproductive for the company’s culture: people feel used, the workload is poorly distributed, and conflict is common and hard to solve.
On the other hand, organizations with an effective culture put effort in establishing triadic relationships between their members. A triad is a three-way relationship where each person is responsible for the quality of the relationship between the other two.
“Triads lead to a blurring of roles between client, service provider, friend, mentor, and coach. Once the triad is established, all the roles merge and morph, requiring each person to contribute to, and receive contributions from, the other two.” — Tribal Leadership, (Logan, King, and Wright).
When a corporate culture is built on triads — in their most stable form composed by three people, but also by groups of individuals — communication is transparent and there is more space to focus on common growth, instead of egotistic pursuits. Triadic relationships promote stability, innovation, and scalability. People trust and support each other, and they are encouraged to network with new individuals and groups in order to create new ideas. By “triading” new parties into their solidly built web of trust, scalability is easy and almost inevitable.
So, what about meeting two friends for coffee instead of one?
Though Tribal Leadership is mainly targeted at the world of business, this informal Starbucks tip triggered a thought in my head:
“What if triading is not exclusive to big corporations — what if I can do it with my friends, with my family, with my personal relationships?”
My first step was to observe: how much time do I regularly spend with only one person? And about with two other people — or more? How many of my important relationships are triads? What benefits are they bringing me?
One thing I observed was how my behavior differs between spending time in duos and spending time in trios.
It’s easy to have an intimate chat with a friend during cocktails or coffee. It’s slightly less easy to open up with your best friend and their partner over a drink.
Two of us can share secrets; two of us will have our own private language, memories, and jokes. Two of us tends to be comfortable, or at least more spacious. Two of us sounds safer.
Now, three of us… three of us can feel less predictable and more vulnerable.
If I invite both my mom and my ex-boyfriend from high school for a cup of tea, there is a part of me that will experience some confusion. These two people share different parts of my life. Therefore, with each of them I might speak a different language, react differently to things, or show different sides of myself.
When three people get together — whether it’s with two strangers, two friends from different jobs, or with a family member—a certain duality is always exposed. I become aware of the masks I wear, and also of my deepest sense of identity, and of how often I let myself express it. But there are benefits to this experience, too.
There’s something special about introducing two people to each other. There’s something educational about listening to a conversation between your girlfriend and her best friend. There’s something magical in brainstorming, loving, playing and creating with your favorite group of people.
I started seeing the potential of triads to change my life, and I wanted to explore it more deeply. So I started experimenting.
Welcoming triads into everyday life
“Leadership is the art of giving people a platform for spreading ideas that work” — Seth Godin
A triad is an equal triangle — it’s balanced, it’s mutual, and it’s stable. It can be an incredible source of contemplation, conflict solving, play, and personal growth.
However, if you are like me, sometimes your ego can sneakily try to get in the way.
I found that these triad exercises help me learn to avoid such pitfalls, while getting more familiar with concepts such as collaboration and true leadership. They’re also a lot of fun: they allow for playing with different dynamics, putting knowledge to practice, and developing new skills and perspectives in completely informal and relaxed situations.
Exercise 1: Observe
Invite two people — whoever you want — for a cup of coffee.
When you meet, bring your observation skills to practice: you’re a detective looking for clues.
Start by focusing your attention on the other two people. What are they wearing? How are they sitting? Are they smiling, frowning, sighing? When you speak, make sure you look in the eyes of both of them. When they speak, listen to them. When you listen, seek for deeper meaning in their words: how do they feel? What do you like the most about them? How can you better support them ?What could be their dreams, fears, and desires?
Notice the relationship between them. Then, notice the relationship between the three of you. Why are you all together? What is each person’s role in this interaction? What possible goal could all of you have in common? Is everyone being respected? Is everyone being listened to?
Keep on paying attention. You will notice that the details are endless, and you will gain more and more knowledge about those people, about yourself, and about your triading possibilities.
Exercise 2: Experiment
This exercise is an adaptation from Marshall Rosenberg’s Nonviolent Communication work.
You need a group of (any) 3 people. Have an intention for this meeting to be productive and meaningful — emotionally, professionally, or even as a life-changing conversation — for everyone involved. You want the sum of the triad to be bigger than the three parts.
- Person A asks Person B an interesting, deep, and/or purposeful question. (Pro tip: out of ideas? Check this list of 36 questions for interpersonal closeness.) Or, if you prefer, come up with something that will be beneficial for all of you to talk about, or a subject that you are already used to discussing.
- Person B takes 3 minutes to reply to the question in a complete and detailed way.
- Person C takes two minutes to summarize Person B’s answer, and then asks another question that is somehow related to this answer.
- The roles change. Person A replies, person B summarizes and asks another question, Person C replies, and so on.
Exercise 3: Create
Create something with a group of three or more people. This can be completely playful. For example:
- Build something with Lego bricks. You can take turns to add pieces to the structure, or if you prefer you can just let the order unfold naturally.
- Write or perform a story together — each person adds a word, an idea, or a sentence.
- Get artistic or crafty: make a drawing, play music together, or bake a cake.
Whatever you do, when you do it, make sure you work towards a common goal. For example: try to build the highest possible tower with your playing bricks. Debate possible problems (the surface is uneven!), discuss strategy (let’s start with bigger pieces at the bottom) and make sure everyone has a say. Keep your observation skills keen — if you’re the only one giving input, you might be falling for an ego trap.
The point of these exercises is not for you to show off to your friends with a cool group activity. It’s practice for learning to work with others and for observing the power of triads.
The point of all of this is to help you see beyond the common one-on-one work cultures and learn the power of triads or group work. The most effective structures are not the hub-and-spoke dyadic cultures that many of use are more familiar with. With that comes the realization that every successful CEO and every inspiring leader is, first of all, another human being — just like yourself. There is something in common between me, you, Steve Jobs, and Nelson Mandela: our ability to relate to others, and the endless opportunities brought by each of our interactions. The most effective leaders are able to maximize the benefit of these interactions for a greater good.
What you do with these opportunities is entirely up to you. I hope these simple exercises will inspire you to collaborate, co-create, align with a higher purpose — and to have fun in the process.