NNTD pith instructions exploration

I keep mentioning this “Non-Naive Trust Dance” framework I’ve discovered/invented but I haven’t yet published a proper introduction to it (despite many half-finished drafts). A friend of mine recently wrote in a group chat:

Would/could you write pith instructions for NNTD? I’m curious but haven’t dived in, and would be more likely to if I could get a more concentrated sense of the flavor of it.

For those not familiar with the term “pith instructions”, it refers to condensed, direct, pithy core instructions, often for a meditation practice. Before I had the chance to reply, another friend linked my yearly review blog post 2020: Free to Dance, and the first friend replied:

Yeah that’s helpful! It definitely gets at the problem statement. I still feel like I’m missing something about what actually goes into doing NNTD.

It can be hard to give quick general instructions for various reasons, but fortunately I already had a tweet that I wrote in response to a prompt from my friend Romeo:

Challenge: make an elevator pitch for your current theory of healthy human relationships.

Hard mode: don’t reference existing popular theories or merely reword one of them.

@RomeoStevens76 on twitter

Here’s the elevator pitch I came up with for the NNTD (which is definitely a theory of healthy human relationships!)

  • respect that there are ways in which you can’t trust each other
    • and gently inquire into why that is
    • not trying to force behavior change
  • trusting that new more workable behavior will emerge
    • when you can see why it makes sense to do what you’re doing
    • and see its impacts on others

I shared that in the group chat and offered to elaborate on anything listed in [[core principles of the [[NNTD]]]] and a discussion ensued between me and my friend. And so we hereby continue a trend of blog posts composed of lightly edited conversations, although this one is more theory than practice.

Friend: Ooh, this elevator pitch is really good! Interesting that there’s a meta-trust element too, in the process itself. I needed something like that, as opposed to the core principles page, which feels too big/complicated/rabbit-holey. It’s just very instantly practical

Malcolm: what’s fascinating is that it does seem like there’s just one core idea in some sense, and if you get it then the ~20 ~principles ~immediately fall out as obvious. (Or at least, that’s been my experience—it may not generalize to others, if for instance I had the other 99 puzzle pieces already.)

F: For context: I’ve got a pile of new work relationships as a consequence of this reorg, and a couple of my new folks clearly don’t trust me yet. And reading that first line—”respect that there are ways in which you can’t trust each other”—just prompted me to notice how I’m trying to FIX that.

M: Aha! Yes, then yeah, the most important thing to do is to honor that they don’t trust you, and that it would be naive for them to trust you. Perfect. That’s the only sane place from which you can begin to build trust—otherwise you’re ummm… fighting the laws of trust-physics.

F: So I should try accepting/exploring the lack of trust.

Self-trust is the basis of effective trust-dancing

M: if you can stay really grounded in the ways in which you trust yourself and you know others trust you, and be clear that those are not in question (although you may have accidentally falsely generalized their implications a bit too broadly) then you’ll have a lot more space to consider others’ concerns. In other words, to the extent that you’re having trouble respecting & honoring that someone else doesn’t trust you, it’s probably because you fear losing touch with your own self-trust, so focus on honoring yourself.

This is probably where the urge to fix comes from, and why it feels so urgent—if it were just a matter of building trust, it would feel more obvious that it makes sense to go at the optimal pace for that. There could be other schemas that would generate this urgent need to fix though, such as “if people don’t trust me, they don’t respect me [and that’s very bad because…]”

F: Yep, this urgency definitely ties to a questioning of my own trust in myself — “can I even do this” / “what do I even bring here” / “I don’t even know what I don’t know” — and feeling time pressure to figure it out.

M: Yup, totally. There’s also a subtle piece here where with respect to things that aren’t just about you but are about interacting with them specifically… ideally you can actually hold a space of genuine not-knowing about whether you might hurt them that they don’t trust they won’t be hurt. This could be either:

  • because you do something that lands as a hurt to them in a way that surprises you because you have different buckets, or
  • because their patterns or projections or whatever cause you to behave in ways that you recognize as hurtful but would not ordinarily behave, and you didn’t expect to hurt them because you didn’t expect to end up in this situation but they kinda did expect to be hurt because this is the usual way they get hurt

So there’s a kind of humility there, rather than “of course I would never hurt you!” which is fundamentally equivalent to the fixing energy in that it’s trying to cause trust to exist without building it. Like it’s one thing to say “I would be very surprised if that happened” but also you might not actually really know what the “that” is that they’re afraid of—their concern might, under the surface, be essentially a fear that their attachment wounds will get poked in a way they don’t know how to deal with, and like, can you really be so sure that won’t happen? (See Dream Mashups for more on this.)

(I’m still workshopping the language here. Instead of “hurt them” I originally wrote “betray them” but it has a complex relationship with trust, and “wrong them” also would fit but I would need another whole write-up to explain what “wronging” means out in Rumi’s field out beyond ideas of right-doing and wrong-doing. One could also just say “trespass some boundary”, particularly “in a way that can’t easily be talked about”.)

Respecting distrust helps build trust

M: sometimes it can be really valuable to speak to the lack of trust, especially from that grounded & honoring+respectful place.

It’s easiest when the other person has explicitly voiced their distrust, because then you can directly speak to it without reifying it into existence or seeming like a projection or fixation or whatever. Sometimes you can get there with a few steps though, by reflective-listening-paraphrasing some concern with “it sounds like you don’t trust that [I’m going to] X [if you don’t Y]” and then if that lands you can (if grounded enough) say “okay, well, good to know! I’m not going to ask you to trust that if it would be naive!” or “okay. I respect that you don’t trust that. Glad you’re listening to yourself.”

And sometimes there might be a thing you can do right in that moment that will already shift the trust landscape (sometimes this comment itself does so, because of how strongly it validates the other person’s perspective) or there might be a thing that needs to gradually play out over time or something.

F: what comes to mind is “I don’t expect you to trust me yet”

M: I would say “I don’t expect you to trust me until you’ve had whatever experience you need to trust me” or something like that, to make it clear it’s not just like, a time/familiarity thing, but actual learning etc. There might be ways to phrase that that are more or less workable for a given situation.

Some of the boilerplate NNTD language at present is sort of unusually verbose and loopy… I think in some cases there are ways to shorten it (especially if you’re embodying a stance that validates everyone’s perspective) but in other cases the relevant perspective-taking involved is actually 2-4 layers deep and needs to somehow be acknowledged as such. People can model that depth more than they’re often given credit for.

F: Mmmhmm. These are not people who tend to talk a lot about their inner process.

M: Yeah. And maybe the way to phrase it isn’t even about “trust” so much as “what you expect me to do” or something—some phrasing that feels more external

F: Trust is a powerful word thought. Hmmmm. You know, I should start with the self-trust aspect, so I’m coming from a stronger root.

M: That makes deep to me! You might find my resources on Internal Trust-Dancing useful for this!

  1. Internal Trust Dancing case study: EA & relaxation
  2. Internal Trust Dancing case study: scheduling & cancelling dates

(I’d also recommend those case studies, particularly the 2nd one, as demonstrations of some of the moves I’m talking about here around respecting distrust. Respecting your own distrust when another part of you feels differently is a vital part of developing integrated self-trust.)

Internal Trust Dancing case study: scheduling & cancelling dates

A long-time reader of my blog reached out to me after reading Internal Trust Dancing case study: EA & relaxation and asked if I’d do a session, and I said sure! I’m mostly not taking new coaching clients at the moment, but I want to refine and share this technique so I have some small availability for one-off sessions on this. Let me know if you’re also interested!

This case study, shared with permission of course, is a bit longer, since it’s a transcript of an hour’s conversation. I’ve removed a couple tangents but almost all of it is important and it could be misleading to leave out almost any of the lines, so instead this is just a 6000 word post. Read it if you want! It gets juicier about halfway through, for what it’s worth. I do also have more commentary which I can share with folks who are interested.

I’ve annotated the transcript in the same style as the Therapeutic Reconsolidation Process case studies in Unlocking the Emotional Brain, with 7 steps (ABC123V), while trying to not get too shoehorn-y about it. Doing this annotation helped me get clear on what I was actually doing—the level I’m working on wasn’t actually obvious to me until I wrote it out. The steps, for reference, are:

  • accessing sequence
    • Step A: symptom identification
    • Step B: retrieval of symptom-necessitating emotional schema
    • Step C: identification of accessible contradictory knowledge
  • transformation sequence
    • Step 1: reactivation of symptom-necessitating emotional schema
    • Step 2: juxtaposed, vivid experience of contradictory knowledge
    • Step 3: repetition of the juxtaposition experience
  • Step V: verification of change by observation of critical markers

And of course M is me and C is my coaching client.


Internal differentiation—each part taking its own perspective

As discussed in the previous case study, in order to have conversations internally, it’s necessary for the parts to see that they’re parts. Here they each get the chance to speak to their perspective briefly. We don’t go too deeply or intensely into either part’s viewpoint, because we want them both in the room together, and they may not trust each other enough to go deeper. This

C: So there’s one specific problem I want to look at… I ended a relationship 6-8 months ago. And we’re still friends, that’s okay there. A couple months ago I decided to start dating again, so I’ve been scheduling dates, etc. But then, when I get to the point of meeting someone, I don’t want to. And I end up cancelling. This has happened 6 times in the last 2 months. And then I have a date coming up this Saturday but I’ll probably cancel it on Friday.

[This conversation was on Wednesday—there’s an email at the end of this post with an update. This simple articulation of an oscillation from compartmentalization is essentially Step A: symptom identification. This was a conveniently precise and concrete oscillation. However, note that we’re going to focus on the compartmentalization itself, not on the content of the conflict. So for what follows, Step B: retrieval of symptom-necessitating emotional schema, we’re not asking “why is it necessary to cancel the date?” we’re asking “why can’t these two perspectives talk to each other?” The fact that his parts are stuck in a tug of war rather than co-creatively finding a solution to this conflict is the symptom. This is, in general, the focus of internal trust-dancing.]

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Internal Trust Dancing case study: EA & relaxation

This post consists primarily of a lightly-edited text of a chat-based coaching exchange between Malcolm (M) and a participant (P) in a recent Goal-Crafting Intensive session, published with permission.

It serves several purposes I’ve been wanting to write about, which I’ll list here and describe in more detail at the end:

  • Share an initial model of Internal Trust-Dancing, which is also relevant to interpersonal non-naive trust-dancing
  • Talk about the importance & relevance of Perceptual Control Theory & conflict
  • Provide a Goal-Crafting Intensive coaching sample

Without further ado, here’s the conversation we had:


P: I’m thinking useful next steps might be planning out how to explore the above; the ML-work will come relatively naturally as part of my PhD, whereas the science communication could take some fleshing out.

I feel a little discouraged and sad at the prospect of planning it out.

M: Mm—curious if you have a sense of what’s feeling discouraging or sad about the planning process

P: My sense is that if I plan it out it’s somehow mandatory? Like it becomes an “assignment” rather than a goal, like I have to persevere through even on the days where I don’t want to.

M: Here’s a suggestion: write a plan out on a piece of paper, then burn it
(inspired by the quote: “Plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.”)

P: That was fun! I guess I’m very much a “systems” man, I have this fear that nothing will get done if it’s not in the system. But that might be detrimental motivationally for stuff like this.

M: Hm, it sounds like you have a tension between wanting to track everything in the system but then feeling burdened by the system instead of feeling like it’s helping you

P: That definitely strikes a cord (as well as your points, George, about separating “opportunities” from tasks). I guess I’m worried that I won’t get as much done if I’m not obligated to do it, or that it’s somehow “weak” to not commit strongly. But for long term growth, contribution and personal health, that’s probably not the way to go.

M: Yeah! If you want, we could do some introspection and explore where those worries come from!
(we could guide you through that a bit)

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Fractal Pomodoros

Or: how to temporarily put your head down to focus, on different timescales

(Also, lest it’s unclear: I don’t think everyone should work this way, or that anyone should work this way all the time. There’s something to be said for defragmenting your attention, but there’s also something important about improvisation and fluidity.)

There’s a very famous productivity technique called the “pomodoro”, named after the Italian word for “tomato” because its inventor used a tomato-shaped kitchen timer. There’s a lot of subtlety to the full technique, but here I’m going to mostly refer to the basic elements:

  1. pick something to work on
  2. work on it for 25 minutes without distraction
    • external distraction: don’t answer calls or knocks at the door
    • internal distraction: stay focused on your original task/project even if you think of something else you might do instead
  3. when the 25 minutes ends, take a break for 5 minutes
    • (even if you don’t feel like taking a break, take one anyway! stopping randomly, rather than when stuck, can make it easier to get back into it after your break, and it can be easier to get focused if you trust that you’ll pause when the timer goes off)
  4. …repeat 2 & 3 until the task is complete or no longer top priority

There’s something profoundly relieving, for many people, when they first try the pomodoro technique, where a big question goes away: should I be doing something else?

This should I be doing something else? applies to:

  • should I interrupt what I’m doing to talk to my coworker?
  • should I be working on something else?
  • should I be taking a break?
  • should I be working? (if taking a break)

The internal conflict that comes from evaluating these questions every minute or two while trying to work or rest burns a lot of energy without really producing anything meaningful. It’s not to say that those aren’t important questions to consider, just that by default most people can’t usefully consider them every minute.

So instead: pomodoros: a license not to think of anything that isn’t relevant to the task at hand, for 25 minutes. And people regularly discover that they’re able to get more done in a few hours of this method than they usually achieve in a day.

Seriously, if you haven’t tried the pomodoro technique, and you have trouble staying focused on a challenging project… It’s a classic and my go-to #1 productivity technique recommendation. Doesn’t work for everybody or every situation, but when it does work the ROI is huge.

But then, why stop at 25 minutes?

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How I run Online Workshops

(An alternative to “online courses”.)

Context: with a small team, I’ve been running online workshops a couple times a year (30 sessions total) since 2017, called the Goal-Crafting Intensive. It’s been a huge success, with many returning participants and lots of rave reviews and referrals. The GCI is about life-effectiveness (goal-setting, planning, execution, reflection) but the event format could be used for many other topics! I’m sharing this guide because I’d like to see other people make events like this for what they have to teach (and I’d like to attend sessions like this).

Summary/Table of Contents

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Dream Mashups

This article is an elaboration on this tweet:

Everyone is basically living in a dream mashup of their current external situation and whatever old emotional meanings are getting activated by the current situation. Like dreaming you’re at your high school but it’s also on a boat somehow.

What makes this metaphor really powerful is that, as in dreams, somehow the weirdness of this mashup goes unnoticed until you wake up (and only then if you think about it). And then even though you’ve noticed while awake how weird dreams are, you’re just as fooled by the next dream, until you wake up.

This helps explain the vivid reality of peoples’ experiences. The emotional brain is experiencing something totally real—just as your high school is real. The part of you that’s taking in reality is experiencing something totally real—just as boats are real. But, unless you had a really avant-garde education, there is no real “my high school, except on a boat”.

So people experience these mashups in relationships as well, emotionally experiencing their friends & partners as if they’re a parent, teacher, sibling, or bully from childhood, or an earlier friend or partner. Or someone is an adult but when they talk with their parents, they readily overlay their experience of their parents from childhood, who had absolute authority over them. To be clear, it can be particularly strong & weird with trauma but as far as I can tell this is how meaning-making works in general. It’s just sometimes the mapping is a good fit and other times it’s really weird.

And, as with dreams, no matter how weird it gets, we usually don’t notice when it’s happening to us.

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Work With Me – new site page

I’ve recently added a new page to my website called Work With Me. The page will evolve over time but I’m going to write a short blog post about the concept and share the initial snapshot of how it looks, for archival purposes.

Why a “Work With Me” page?

There’s a lot of stories I could tell here. I’ll tell a few slightly fictional versions before getting to the actual series of events that occurred.

One fictional version is that I was inspired by Derek Sivers’ /now page movement but I wanted something that created more affordances for people to connect with me, including regarding opportunities that I’m not actively pursuing now on my own. This is true in the sense that I was thinking about /now by the time I published the page, and in the sense that I would love to see Work With Me pages show up on others’ sites. You could be the first follower, who starts a movement!

Another fictional version is that I was thinking about my Collaborative Self-Energizing Meta-Team Vision and wondering how to make more surface area for people to get involved. I’m someone who thinks a lot about interfaces, not just between humans and products but also between humans and other humans, and it occurred to me that there wasn’t a good interface for people to find out how to plug in with me to work on self-energizing projects together. So I made this page! This was also on my mind, but it’s still not quite how it happened.

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Runway lengthens if you’re making money

(adapted from this twitter thread)

One thing most people don’t realize about starting a small business, particularly in the context of something with low overhead and low fixed costs, like software or media: not-enough revenue is still money!

Say you have $16k and need $2k/mo to live on. That’s 8 months of runway.

Say that after 3 months, your business makes $1k/mo. Not sustainable yet, but now you have 10 months runway! ((16-2*3)/(2-1)=10)

Not-enough revenue is still real money! 🤑

Huh. “runway” is actually backwards metaphor for this thing, at least in a personal context (may be different with “moon or bust” startups, that aren’t making any money while burning up runway).

Real runway is fixed distance, & certain speed needed for takeoff, but faster you go the sooner you run out of runway! 🛫 All-or-nothing. It’s dangerous to be going very fast but not fast enough, because it means that

By contrast, as you get momentum going with a personal business, that actually buys you more time.

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Letter to my younger self, who has just been sent to his room

On behalf of the universe: there’s been a mistake. You weren’t meant to be sent here, to your room.

I’m highlighting the mistaken nature of this situation because what I want to tell you is: you’re free. But I don’t want to be your rescuer, you see. In order for you to really be free of this room, in your mind not just your body, you’ll need to be free of the meaning of it, which means coming to understand why you were never meant to be sent here in the first place.

In saying you’re free, I’m not saying, “you’re good—it doesn’t matter what you did that resulted in you being sent to your room.” There’s probably some sort of conversation that needs to happen, because whatever you did affected other people in ways that you need to understand, and I think you’d want to do something different if you could understand both those impacts and also understand what prompted you to do what you did in the first place. Also, other people need to understand what impacts they had on you! All of that needs to be talked about, in order for everyone to have a good time now and in the future.

And… in saying “there’s still a further conversation that needs to happen,” I’m not saying, “you’re bad—you can’t relax or feel good until we have that further conversation.” You don’t need to stress about it. You didn’t do anything wrong. We want to have this conversation in a way that feels good for you, and for everyone.

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Lecturing & Learning: Emotional Coherence Case Study

This post is adapted from notes to myself plus a bit of context I added for some friends I shared the notes with. It’s a cool example of how gradually making an unconscious pattern more conscious can lead to transformational insight, and the specific pattern also seems like one that’s likely to resonate for a lot of other people with similar experiences to mine. I’m willing to bet that other people who’ve interacted with me a lot directly are familiar with this pattern as it shows up in me—and I’d be interested to hear about that!

For the last week or so, my partner Sarah and I have been doing a lot of active noticing a particular tone I sometimes have, which Sarah hates, and she described it as being lectured. It took many months of work on both our parts for her to be able to articulate the feeling so clearly as “lectured” and for me to be able to acknowledge that there’s something there even though I wasn’t sure what or why. While I could tell it didn’t work (because it made Sarah defensive) I didn’t initially have any intrinsic motivation to speak any differently. More on that work and on motivation to change, below.

Anyway, since we’ve gotten a better handle on that, I’ve gotten a lot better at noticing when I’m doing the Lecturing thing, often via Sarah making a 🤨 face at me, but sometimes from my own stance or tone. As I’ve been integrating that unconscious drive, I’ve started often interrupting myself midsentence, something like “So you see, it’s really important… (S: 🤨) …that I lecture you about this. You need a lecture.”

And speaking that explicitly defuses a lot of the tension, which has already been great. Yesterday some additional integration happened, via gentle prompting from Sarah. She was saying something and I was suddenly experiencing an immense urge. I had enough mental space to hold that urge, and I strained to speak: “It. Is. So. Hard. For. Me. To. Not. Lecture. You. Right now.” I started to try to convey something about my experience of that to her, and she very gently and groundedly suggested “is there something you might want to do for yourself, first?”

I tuned into that part of me and it voiced internally “why are you so fucking stupid?!?

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A portrait of Malcolm Ocean

I'm Malcolm Ocean.

I'm trying to figure out how humans work so I can help make humanity work. More about me.

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