One of the programs we are working on is the role of the ways to explain the events. characteristic of the systemic psychotherapies, on the therapeutic change.


All psychotherapeutic models must develop experiences, methods, strategies of intervention and solutions which are able to help individuals, couples and families to tell another story about themselves and the events of their lives. It is not possible to change our past experience. What we can and must change is how we tell the stories about ourselves and our past. Building new narratives, opening up new points of view that the “dominant narratives” obscure, help overcome problems and symptoms.

But how can our clients construct a different perception, even emotional, of the events of their life and their past?

Systemic psychotherapies have offered an original answer that can be summarized in the discovery of triadic thinking, i.e. the contestualization of events in interactions, including at least three actors. “Recourse to explicative triadic schemes has been one of the distinguishing features of systemic psychotherapies from their very start. As early as 1960 Weakland provided a triadic interpretation of the double bind, originally described as a dyadic phenomenon. A few years later, Haley (1969) identified the triangle as the preferred unit of analysis in nascent systemic psychotherapy. Other pioneers of family therapy, such as Zuk, Bowen and Minuchin  and collaborators  also focused on triangles and triangulations. In addition to using systemic hypotheses – always triadic – the Milan Approach (Selvini Palazzoli et al., 1978, 1980) introduced circular interviewing, which elicits triadic patterns during sessions, also by posing questions on how the dyadic relation is seen by a third person.(Ugazio et al 2012 p.54).
This discovery can be assimilated to the identification of a new field of inference based on the contextualization of events in at least triadic units. The unconscious is the field of inference discovered by psychoanalysis, while systemic psychotherapies have discovered triadic thinking. The main purpose of triadic thinking is to tell a new story, without being imprisoned in the old narratives “saturated by the problem”, according to White’s happy definition, nor to fall into an extreme post-modernism or relativism, for which one narrative is as valid as any other.

“For over twenty years now, we have had evidence that our ‘lived story’ is constructed by schemes that are at least triadic. Fivaz-Depeursinge and Corboz-Warnery (1999) have in fact shown that -as early as three months- the child is able to interact simultaneously with two partners. These results are of exceptional relevance because they suggest that: “systemic therapists, by introducing triadic schemes into therapeutic conversation, not only help their clients to tell a new story but may also provide them with a thinking that is based on inference fields, familiar through their lived experience and story. Therapists would thus be more plausible and would open up connections with an unspoken domain of experience based on the emotions (lived experience and story), whose role in the development of psychopathological problems is unquestioned” ( Ugazio et al. 2012, p.57).

But are we certain that triadic schemes really belong to tacit knowledge and that people, when explaining events, resort mainly to monadic or dyadic explanatory ones? Do we really have to think that, for example, a girl who is trying to explain why her sister has become anorexic, will attribute her sister’s pathology to her difficult relationship with her body (monadic scheme) or to her conflictual relationship with her mother (dyadic scheme)? In other words:


To answer this question we analyzed the explanations provided by 400 subjects to an unexpected behavior presented through 4 stimulus situations in which the breadth of the field of observation was manipulated. The results show that triadic explanations are unusual, even if not entirely extraneous to common sense.

Another more recent study on patients’ in person explanations of their symptoms confirms these results.  

to know more:

Ugazio, V., Pennacchio R., & Fellin, L., Guarnieri S, Anselmi, P. (2020) “Explaining symptoms in systemic therapy. Does triadic thinking come into play?”, Frontiers, 11, 1-11, doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2020.00597

Ugazio, V., Fellin, L., Pennacchio, R., Negri, A, & Colciago, F. (2012). Is systemic thinking really extraneous to common sense? Journal of Family Therapy, 34(1), 53-71

Ugazio, V., Fellin, L., Pennacchio, R., & Colciago, F. (2010). L’ermeneutica triadica è davvero estranea al senso comune? Terapia familiare, 92, 31-54

Roberto Pennacchio (2011) Come i pazienti spiegano i propri sintomi? Le attribuzioni causali nella terapia sistemica. [How do patients explain their symptoms? Causal attribution in systemic therapy].Quaderni di Psicologia Clinica,Bergamo: University Press, 2, pp.101-124.

Lisa Fellin e Roberto Pennacchio (2011). Ermeneutica sistemica e intenzionalità nella conversazione terapeutica. [Systemic thinking and intentionality in the therapeutic conversation] Quaderni di Psicologia Clinica (vol.2, pp. XXX). Bergamo: University Press, 2, pp.131-153.


1 to 3. From monad to triad. This is a coding system of the attributions that we have built to study a dimension, ignored by the line of research on attribution and made  relevant by systemic psychotherapies: the breadth of the field of inference. This instrument, whose reliability has been verified, can be used for analyzing also complex texts as transcripts of therapeutic sessions, biographical interviews or novels.

Ugazio V., Fellin L., Colciago F., Pennacchio R., & Negri A. (2008) 1 to 3: From the monad to the triad. A unitizing and coding manual for the fields of inference of causal explanations. TPM. Testing, Psychometrics, Methodology in Applied Psychology, 15(4), 171-192.

To study intentionality we use a partially modified version of F.Ex, an instrument developed by Bertrand Malle of which several versions are available

For those interested in learning more about the interactive and explanatory triadic level:

  • E. Fivaz-Depeursinge e A. Corboz-Warnery(1999), The primary triangle, New York: Basic Books
  • Harry Procter (2012). Developments in Personal and Relational Construct Psychology: Qualitative Grids and the Levels of Interpersonal Construing.In J.D. Raskin, S.K. Bridges, and J.S. Kahn (Eds.), Studies in Meaning 5: Dialogues and Diatribes in Constructivist Psychology, New York: Pace University Press.