In developmental research, the family has mainly been studied through dyadic interaction. Three-way interactions have received less attention, partly because of their complexity. This difficulty may be overcome by distinguishing between four hierarchically embedded functions in three-way interactions: (1) participation (inclusion of all participants), (2) organization (partners keeping to their roles), (3) focalization (sharing a common focus) and (4) affective contact (being in tune). We document this hierarchical model on a sample of 80 families observed in the Lausanne Trilogue Play situation across four different sites. Hierarchy between functions was demonstrated by means of Guttman scalability coefficient. Given the importance of the child's development in a threesome, the pertinence of this model for family assessment is discussed. Copyright © 2004 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.