The Obreau Tripod: Enabling challenging conversations
The Obreau Tripod is a structure for helping groups and individuals get ready for challenging conversations.
"Obreau" is a composite of the first two letters each of Observation, Reasonableness and Authenticity. Each of these terms represents both a "leg" of the Tripod and a principle for working through difficult issues.
You can utilize the Tripod in helping plan what you might say to others on just about any thorny, difficult topic that's not primarily technical.
Applying the Obreau Tripod involves working to keep each of the 3 legs "fully extended":
- Focusing on what can be observed, discerned directly
- Allowing that, at this time at least, the other people involved can be reasonable
- Preparing to speak to what is true for you AND reflective of observation, AND consistent with presuming reasonableness on the part of others.
Benefits of using the Tripod include:
- Introducing a level of structure to help sort through the messiness of virtually any thorny issue
- Bringing a degree of clarity to what otherwise can seem an intractable problem
- Promoting creativity; enabling new ways to frame an issue
- Reducing the risks and threat of speaking up
- Strengthening the capacity of users to build shared understandings with others.
Obreau Tripod videos
Case example: Alicia, Compliance, and Operations
Here's a relatively simple example (simple in the sense of only a little detail provided) that we’ll use to illustrate the application of the Tripod in preparing for a challenging conversation.
Alicia is a compliance manager in a healthcare products company. Over coffee with a friend, Alicia talks about her frustrations with the Operations group. "Operations people here don't care about their compliance obligations", Alicia says. "My team members call them 'freelancers'; they just do their own thing."
Recently, Jeremy, the head of operations, phoned Alicia on a business matter. At the end of the call he said, "I have a request: please get your people to ease up. Compliance is making it impossible for us to do our jobs." Alicia tells her friend that, while she has some sympathy for Jeremy's position, there are many requirements that, like it or not, the company must go along with. And she needs to get more cooperation from Jeremy and his Operations colleagues.
In applying the Tripod with this case we might imagine that we're helping Alicia prepare for a conversation with Jeremy. The outline below represents only one of many forms of words that could be used. It's vital that anyone applying the Tripod uses language that suits them.
Working from Observation
With this first leg, we seek to "pull back" and ask: What is directly noticeable with this issue, topic or challenge?The work here involves peeling away our judgments and interpretations, to focus on what can be discerned directly.
Working from Observation is intended as a counterpoint to the common default behavior of reacting to new information or experience. When we react—whether by, for instance, immediately disagreeing, analyzing, or offering a solution or strategy—we are likely to be assuming there is only one way of looking at the issue: our own.
The practice of Working from Observation helps sensitize us to the reality that we perceive selectively, and that usually other interpretations are possible.
When we work from what we observe, or hear, directly we help keep ourselves open to different meanings - as well as minimize the threat associated with talking about difficult issues.
Working from Observation in Alicia's case
Here we ask what can be discerned directly.
Is it really observable that the "Operations people don't care about their compliance obligations", as Alicia suggests, or at least implies?
No, it is not. This is an interpretation. We cannot directly "see" people's intentions.
Alicia might have some examples of specific compliance breeches she could share (allowing that there's also likely to be judgment involved with these).
She might also have examples of specific responses by Jeremy and Operations when compliance breeches or issues have been brought to their attention.
It's an observation that Jeremy has asked for Compliance to "ease up" saying "Compliance is making it impossible to do our jobs."
Aiming to be precise, to use 'fine-grained' descriptions helps build a focus on observation. Otherwise, it is easy to drift into judgment, such as with a framing like "Jeremy is trying to pressure Compliance to back off."
As well as implying an intent which cannot be directly observed, such judgments help constrain the range of possibilities we can see. Working from observation helps us stay less attached to particular interpretations, more open to possibilities.
Here we imagine what the issue might "look like" to others from where they sit. We presume that they are able, in this instance at least, to act as reasonable people who have a way of interpreting events and experience that makes sense to them.
Focusing first on the stakeholder we most want to engage with, we think about and make notes on their possible but unstated:
- Assumptions (what they might take as given, granted)
- Interests (what they might value, want to advance or protect)
- Feelings (emotions they might be experiencing)
- Knowledge (what they might have insights or experience in but have not declared).
Only if we attribute reasonableness can we test our interpretations. We don't need to believe the people concerned are generally reasonable. What is necessary, though, is to imagine they can be at this time.
It's also important to consider our own unstated assumptions, interests, feelings, and knowledge. We all bring our mindsets to conversations, and having some awareness of these helps us gain a more rounded, holistic appreciation of an issue.
Attributing Reasonableness in Alicia's case
A challenge for Alicia here is to imagine possible assumptions, interests, feelings, and knowledge for Jeremy and his group acting reasonably.The purpose is to develop hypotheses for testing; in this case to enable Alice to gain a more considered, empathic understanding of what might be “going on” for Jeremy and his colleagues.
|Alicia's assessment of what might be real for Jeremy and the Operations group acting reasonably|
|Assumptions||That Compliance is imposing unnecessary demands on Operations
That Compliance is not having sufficient regard to the impact on Operations and its work
|Interests||Meeting customer needs and customer goals without being unduly shackled by compliance considerations
(An interest such as "not having to worry about compliance considerations" wouldn't pass the reasonableness test. A reasonable operations manager could be expected to have some awareness and responsibility in connection with his/her compliance obligations.)
|Feelings||Frustration at perceived difficulties being created for Operations by Compliance|
|Knowledge||Perhaps experience from other contexts where there was less emphasis on compliance|
Alicia might also usefully consider her own assumptions, interests, feelings, and knowledge. Possibilities include:
- That Jeremy and Operations are not sufficiently attentive to compliance matters
- That it will be possible to build greater understanding and cooperation between the groups
- Ensuring the company's compliance obligations are met
- Improving relations with Operations
- Frustration with Operations' lack of responsiveness to compliance matters
- Apprehension at having this conversation with Jeremy
- Experiences from past encounters with Jeremy.
The point of the Attributing Reasonableness leg of the Tripod is to help us break away from the usual default pattern of judging others negatively and not testing our interpretations. Attributing reasonableness enables us to enrich our appreciation of what might be occurring with the particular issue and to do so in a way that we can validate with others.
Speaking Authentically here means that we say what is true for us AND that connects with our observations (the first Tripod leg) AND that reflects an assumption that the others involved are capable of reasonableness (the second leg).
This Tripod leg helps us overcome a common default behavior of "dancing around": speaking in euphemisms, avoiding or sugar-coating the difficult topics, and holding back on what we would like to say.
To speak authentically with the Tripod, however, is not a matter of “unloading” on others; telling them how you really think and feel even if that means sharply criticizing them. Doing so is unlikely to help in opening up conversations and building shared meaning—which is the point of the Tripod process.
- Identify a neutral way of introducing the topic
- Think of possible questions you might ask which reflect observation and reasonableness and on which you are genuinely interested in hearing others' views
- Identify what else you might say, that is true for you and that sits with observation and reasonableness.
Speaking Authentically in Alicia's case
A neutral introduction
- Alicia could invite Jeremy to talk with her about the concerns each group has regarding the other and about how the two groups can best work together.
- Alicia could also declare that she has some data to share on specific compliance matters in working with Operations. She might invite Jeremy to share any relevant data he has.
Possible questions (reflecting Observation and Reasonableness): These are indicative; not ones that Alicia would necessarily ask:
- You said that "Compliance is making it impossible for us to get our jobs done." Please tell me what leads you to this view.
- I imagine you see some of the requirements that my team is insisting upon as unnecessary. If so, please tell me what you think we should do differently, to enable us to meet our obligations and you to meet yours.
- How do you see Compliance and Operations as ideally working together from here on?
Other things Alicia might say:
- She could declare—without blaming Operations—the frustrations she and her team have felt regarding Operations' handling of compliance issues.
- Alicia could talk about the different interests of the two groups and the likelihood of tensions between them.
- She could acknowledge the importance of Operations to the business and of her desire to work together with them.
- She could also talk about drivers for her and her own group and about what it is that she must protect for the business—and about how she feels regarding these priorities
- Alicia might invite further conversations to improve relations and cooperation between the groups.
If our intention is to truly engage with others to find common understandings on a challenging issue, then speaking authentically is vital. Only when we communicate in this way are others likely to share with us their thoughts and feelings about the present issue, without being unduly concerned about ulterior motives or hidden agendas on our part.
Using the Obreau Tripod
You're welcome to put the Obreau Tripod to work—as long as you do so within the parameters of the Creative Commons licencing (see below).
Some examples of how the Tripod can be used include:
- A coach helps an executive team prepare for a difficult performance-related discussion involving an external partner
- The presenter of a leadership development program asks participants to work in groups of three, with each group looking into a case introduced by one member
- A facilitator assists a work group to make sense of recent difficult interactions with another team, in preparation for a joint planning session.
The basic technology required to use the Tripod is very simple; a sheet of flip chart paper ruled into 3 columns, headed "Observation", "Reasonableness", and "Authenticity", as with the case example above.
The more difficult work involves "keeping the Tripod standing", with each of the 3 legs in place. This is not easy but it can be done—especially with practice. Some further pointers:
The function of the Working from Observation leg is to help us avoid reacting and locking-in prematurely to particular interpretations and analyses. Observations provide a relatively low-risk way to contribute to a conversation and remain open to possibilities. For instance, we can say something like: "I noticed (x). Please tell me what you saw."
The Attributing Reasonableness leg assists us to lower our attachment to the default story we tell ourselves about others. Considering the possible unspoken assumptions, interests, feelings, and knowledge for people acting reasonably requires disciplined work. Yet a potential is to reveal other ways of making sense of an issue that you had not imagined previously.
With the Speaking Authentically leg, you are seeking to identify what you might say about the issue that is real for you but also reflective of observation and of attributing reasonableness to others. These are pretty much the only constraints on what you can say. Yet they can help you avoid reverting to default patterns of reacting, negatively judging others, and dancing around the issue.
Remember, with the Tripod you're preparing for a conversation; thinking about what you might say depending how the interaction unfolds. You're not writing a script. Yet having primed yourself for the conversation using the Tripod, you are potentially well-placed to explore an issue in ways that brings forth new insights and point to a way forward.
A couple of tips: Before introducing the Tripod to others try it out on a personal issue for you. And don't start with your most challenging issue on Day 1. Start small and work up.
Article on the Obreau Tripod
"Mindful OD Practice and the Obreau Tripod: Beyond Positive/Problem Polarities"
OD Practitioner Journal of the Organization Development Network
Winter 2014, Vol. 46 No. 1 pp. 18-25.
An emerging theme in OD is a contrast between appreciative/possibility-centered approaches and conventional, problem/deficit-based orientations. A proposition is that if we can recognize and think beyond this duality, we might discover a largely untapped potential in the space between the two formulations of OD work. Operating mindfully in this space entails opening up and exploring contentious issues without seeking either to problem-solve or focus exclusively on the positive. The Obreau Tripod is introduced as a structure to aid in this work. The article includes a case example of applying the Tripod in seeking to tease out different perspectives on a change issue to enable action in a university context.
Don Dunoon is grateful to the OD Network and the OD Practitioner journal for permission to reproduce this article.
Web workshop: Applying the Obreau Tripod
This free, 90-minute session is designed to introduce potential users to the practicalities of applying the Obreau Tripod in helping groups and individuals prepare for challenging conversations.
Thurs March 6, 2.30 pm Eastern (US) time
Presenter: Don Dunoon, Obreau Tripod developer
Designed for coaches, OD practitioners, leadership developers and others in related fields, the workshop will include:
- An overview of the main concepts and elements of the Tripod structure
- Discussion on what works (and what doesn’'t) in applying the Tripod
- A case example, to be drawn from the group on the day, of putting the Tripod to work.
You’ll receive a link to the web-workshop in reply. Everyone will have voice access and ideally you’ll have a headset/mic. Alternatively, you can call in to a conference call number for the voice component (in which case, national call charges will apply).
Numbers are limited to 15 to ensure plenty of interaction opportunities. It will be first-in, first-served, so register soon!
What professional coaches are saying about the Obreau Tripod
Quotes are responses by coachesaround the world to a post about the Tripod on the Institute of Coaching Professional Association page on Linkedin, February 2014. (Each quote is from a separate individual.)
"...it seems to me that you have created a model that encompasses many useful techniques in a very user friendly manner -- appreciate the sharing'
"The Tripod provides an easy-to-remember structural tool to teaching others how to have conscious and hopefully, un-emotionally charged conversations. I appreciate this approach."
Creative Commons licensing