In my 2019 yearly review: Divided Brain Reconciled by Meaningful Sobbing, I experimented for the first time in a while with setting a theme for the upcoming year: Free to Dance. And lo, while I didn’t think about it that often, it’s proved remarkably relevant, in ways I couldn’t have anticipated.
The original concept of the phrase came in part from having just picked up Bruce Tift’s book Already Free: Buddhism Meets Psychotherapy on the Path of Liberation, which by early January I could tell would be a major book of my year. Another related dimension of it was something I realized in doing some of the emotional processing work last year, which was that parts of me sometimes still kind of think I’m trapped at school where I’m supposed to sit still at my desk, among other indignities.
The other main piece was observing at a couple of points that I sometimes seem to move through the world as if I’m dancing, and other times much more heavily. During an exercise at the Bio-Emotive retreat midsummer, we were asked to reflect on a question something like “how would I be if I were showing up most brilliantly/beautifully?” And what arose for me is something like “I think I’d always be dancing.”
So all of these layers mean that the social isolation of the pandemic didn’t put much of a specific damper on this life theme, even though I was hardly free to go to dance events (except some lovely outdoor bring-your-own-partner contact improv events that a friend hosted). I had been intending to travel the world a bit, to San Francisco, perhaps Austin, perhaps the UK, and none of those visits happened.
What did happen?
A lot of relationship turbulence, and the profound emergence of a new way of thinking about trust and trust-building.
In the spring and summer, I was grappling with a situation where two of the people I was closest to, Jean and Sarah, were at a communicational impasse. I could talk with both of them and relate fairly effectively, but they were living in very different realities, and I found that I could only be in touch with one of those worlds at a time: whenever I was talking to Sarah I saw Jean’s approach as totally unworkable, and whenever I was talking with Jean, I saw Sarah’s approach as totally unworkable. I realized that for the sake of not just those relationships but also my own sanity, I needed to find a frame where I could see the sense that both of their perspectives made.
What emerged was a framework I call the Non-Naïve Trust Dance (NNTD).
It’s an insight that feels like it’s on the scale of a “life’s work”, or something like that. And there’s still a lot of work to do to realize what I can broadly now see is possible here—and necessary.
So of course, I will write much more, as there’s a lot to say about it, but this yearly review feels like a cool opportunity to introduce it not with the intention of adequately conveying or presenting the whole thing but just to say “a huge part of my year was about exploring this puzzle”. Maybe that’s a good way to frame it: what are the questions that seem to simultaneously be addressed by the NNTD?
These questions are of deep pragmatic importance within the field that I’ve been in for the last 5 years, of nurturing trust-building cultures into existence & coherence.
The framework is broadly intended to be descriptive in the same sense that aerodynamics is. “Aerodynamics is the way air moves around things. The rules of aerodynamics explain how an airplane is able to fly.” [NASA’s Grades K-4 article] If something flies, it follows the rules of aerodynamics—even if it’s a bird and can’t explain those rules. The NNTD is the way trust-building works. The principles of the NNTD explain how people are able to come to trust themselves and each other deeply. In both cases, it can function prescriptively: if you want to build something that flies, you’ll do a lot better if you understand aerodynamics. If you want to build trust, understanding the NNTD will tend to help. Of course, both are empirical—if you build something that flies and appears to violate the laws of aerodynamics, then the model is inadequate. Likewise with the NNTD.
To the extent that anything I’m saying sounds naïve—great. I need your help. Integrating that sense—from you, and everybody—is exactly where the non-naïvety comes from.
In its current instantiation, primarily articulated by me, the NNTD can understandably look like yet another protocol, like NVC (Nonviolent Communication), or any number of other communication frameworks. And it can function in this way. But it is unique among such frameworks I’m aware of in its emphasis on the need for respecting the frames of other protocols. If one person is trying to use NVC to have a workable conversation and someone else is trying to use Radical Honesty, both may feel that the other person isn’t communicating safely.
The NNTD says that both are right, essentially… although neither is obligated to do anything different. It’s just… in order to build trust, they will need to figure out how to communicate in a way that the other person can feel safe with, while simultaneously not compromising their own integrity. This is the dance.
Most of these communication frameworks have something to offer, but the frameworks tend to break down when people don’t feel safe exploring the ways in which their own favored frameworks don’t feel safe for other people. This is like… how do you negotiate which language to conduct the negotiations in? There’s a bootstrapping puzzle here.
This isn’t about the frameworks themselves—whether or not someone has an explicit framework for how they want to talk, everybody has an immediately available sense of what’s safe and workable for them. There are certain conversational moves that other people can make that generate a sense of distrust, and that’s okay. Honoring that distrust, however it arises, and dialoguing with it, is where non-naïve trust comes from.
There’s lots more that could pour out of me about the Non-Naïve Trust Dance framework here, and that’s exciting. I want to write more about it. And for now I want to continue writing my yearly review. So I’m asking myself: what’s the upshot of all of this? What do people need to know?
I’ve been testing & refining the NNTD everywhere I get the chance, including an experiment with doing relationship counselling for an acquaintance.
I had a remarkable collaboration with a friend George this year, who explored with me a prototype of a collaboration that we called the Complice Fellowship. It was open-ended, with a firm but flexible time and money container, and it deepened our working relationship substantially and provided a context for practicing the Non-Naïve Trust Dance as well as seeing how the NNTD frame could operate in a business context. We worked through a bunch of internal tangles & trauma we both had in relation to working with other people.
That’s just part of a much larger and more ambitious thing I’m working on, which I’m calling a self-energizing meta-team. The Goal-Crafting Intensive workshops that a small crew of us have been hosting for years are also part of that.
(Aside: many of my blog posts over the last few years have emerged from the time pressure of wanting to have a newsletter to send out to mention the GCI workshops. This is now shifting—after a few years of publishing quite rarely, I have rebooted my writing with Twitter, Roam, and journaling, and rebooted regular blog posts with showtimes, an amazing technique that I’m still getting the hang of.)
The NNTD has also played a role in a question I was exploring throughout last year, which is “how do I effectively learn from other people and from situations?” This has included practicing the skill of interviewing, which I really enjoy (I’m a little scared I might start a podcast), taking my friend Matt Goldenberg’s course on non-coercive motivation, and hiring a close friend as a mindset coach. Turns out that improving my own self-trust makes it a lot easier to learn from others! (Like Family Systems and Double Crux, there’s totally an “Internal NNTD” too)
One other place where it has clearly been able to do something new is in transforming a ton of tension and distrust in my relationship with my life partner Sarah, from being utterly intractable to being challenging but workable and satisfying.
My relationships with Sarah and Jean were, as I said above, were the necessity that inspired the invention of the NNTD, and there’s something in particular about how this have been playing out in my ongoing dialogue with Jean that feels like an important update to share here.
This past year year I’ve had a profound differentiation of my own thinking from Jean’s thinking. Those who’ve read through my archives may recognize the name Jean from many posts over the years where I’ve told stories about my learning process. Jean has been my close friend and a kind of mentor, role model, and also partner in business and in life in general—since 2012 when I met her, and since 2013 in particular when I moved into the house-qua-research-center in Waterloo, Ontario where she’s been incubating one of the most potent prototypes of the new cultural platform that I’m aware of. It’s been an amazing, challenging, and thrilling project to have invested those years of my life in. (You may not know this, but I’ve considered that collaborative culture project my main focus since 2016, as opposed to the much more legible work I also do like developing the Complice app.)
This year, I moved out.
I’ll get to that in a bit, but I want to briefly talk about the shift in my relationship with Jean. This feels important and also sensitive to talk about, and I’m approaching it with a sense of love. For years Jean has herself had a relationship with my blog, sometimes helping edit my writing before it goes live, and other times feeling like she’s been more in the loop about my thinking from my blog posts than from in-person interactions with me, despite us living together. I’m curious what of this post will feel new to her or feel like something she already understands.
I mentioned above that 2020 involved a huge sort of stalemate between Jean and Sarah’s perspectives, and that I was kind of oscillating between the two. The perspective I would get in while talking with Jean seemed in some sense “bigger”, and I initially had the impression that it somehow transcended and included Sarah’s perspective or the perspective that I would often get in when I was talking with Sarah.
It now seems obvious to me, as a basic principle of non-naïve trust dancing, that if I’m oscillating back and forth between two perspectives, or if two people are at an impasse of dialogue, then even if one perspective is in some meaningful sense larger, more meta, or more accurate, there’s still a sense in which each perspective is missing something that the other sees. If the larger perspective were truly an adequate superset of the smaller, it would understand its concerns and be able to talk with it in a way that would be trustable.
And it’s fine if its not—this is the usual situation. Where things get messy is when frames think that they understand something when they don’t.
In my 2017 article Transcending Regret, Problems, and Mistakes, I explore a longstanding conflict between Jean and I about the nature of judgment and regret. I haven’t read it in awhile and I was struck when I pulled it up just now to find this paragraph:
What I ended up with from this was a sense that I couldn’t trust Jean to care for the future, because she didn’t share my judgment about the past. If she didn’t agree that we should have done things differently then, how could I trust that she would do things differently in the future?Transcending Regret, Problems, and Mistakes (2017 blog post of mine)
While I stand by the insight that that article is pointing at and that many people have been deeply moved by, it’s clear to me now that I mostly hadn’t actually integrated those judgments I had, but rather suppressed them. I had genuinely found access to an expansive post-regret stance, but that larger frame didn’t actually adequately understand the concerns of my smaller one! The same sorts of concerns that I had that I was trying to get heard by Jean about in 2017 remain things I’m concerned about now!
In seeking coherence & collaboration with Jean, over the last 6 years, I would temporarily be out of touch with those concerns, for periods of hours, days, or even in some sense months, but when something would spark awareness, I would find myself angry, at one or both of us, for having not addressed what that judgment was trying to care about. Deep anger that itself would often be expressed as judgment, which would tend to mean that it itself would ultimately wind up suppressed again.
There are different ways in which Jean and I and the others in our community of practice were co-creating this dynamic. My largest viewpoint continues to see clearly that blame is a inadequate for the task of organizing human response-ability, and so I’m not pointing any fingers at myself, or Jean, or anyone. We’re all trying to figure out this collaborative post-blame culture thing together, and I have tremendous respect for Jean, and everything that I’ve learned from her and from our relationship.
There is anger, and at times judgment, and still… I can also truly say about the whole thing: I have no regrets.
Part of what it means for the post-blame perspective to be larger and to transcend the other one is that I can trust that I’ll eventually find my way back even if I go into blame for some period of time in order to access a knowing that doesn’t know how else to make itself known. So it doesn’t feel catastrophic in a way it used to, which in turn makes it a lot easier to feel curious.
And man, it is way more workable, way more sanity-inducing, and way more fun, to be finding out what post-judgment looks like to each part of me, and dancing with them to find out what they need to build trust in that as a workable way of being, than to be seeing myself as having “judgmental parts” that are somehow an obstacle. For a great take on how defensiveness is a part of you protecting a sacred knowing that you otherwise might lose touch with, check out this piece my friend wrote on courage and defensiveness.
All of this applies not just internally but also to other people. When I see someone else become judgmental, my response used to be to try to help them shift out of judgment, as a necessary step in being able to dialogue. Post-judgment is necessary for judgment, but now (when I remember—I’m still adjusting to this new understand) I don’t try to go there directly. Instead, I consider, “can I find a way for this person to feel that the information that their judgment is holding has been understood & welcomed, without losing touch with or negating anything that I know?”
(I want to cite a few of my inspirations here. One is my friend Mark Lippmann’s remarkably general meditation protocol, which has some really important concepts around the difference between adding and removing layers when doing self-transformation. Another is the Emotional Coherence Framework (great intro here) which I appreciated so much that in the fall I sought out a Coherence Therapist to work with, which has been great—she’s also down to nerd out with me about the theory.)
All of this comes out of the NNTD, which is a model of collaborative culture that is different from—although necessarily fully backwards-compatible with—the one I’ve been learning from Jean over the years.
(This new model appears to me to be a natural extension of Jean’s: a few new powerful theorems provable from the same axioms. But it’s perhaps similar to how Gödel’s incompleteness theorem overturns some pretty basic assumptions that were being made about the very systems that Gödel used to disprove those assumptions.)
So part of what the NNTD has meant for me is taking a step outside of Jean’s frame that I haven’t been able to take before, while staying broadly connected and samesided with her to the best of my ability. I’m finding a way to honor everything I don’t yet trust about her (and others) without making them wrong or suggesting that they also shouldn’t trust themselves. This is a pretty profound shift in the sense that for the previous 8 years I would have described some models Jean created as being the primary paradigm I was using to understand the world, and while I’ve been developing articulations & refinements of those models the whole time (I can’t help it) this is the first time I feel like my primary paradigm is my own different understanding.
I’ve talked with Jean about these updates some. There’s a ton of work for me to do here in continuing to actually talk with Jean about all of this, because as I said above—to the extent that I can’t actually talk with her on all levels about this stuff, there are things about collaboration that I still don’t understand and need to integrate.
(One of the differences we have, according to a conversation we had in November, is that I hold the same to be true symmetrically (about everyone, in fact) and she does not. That is, from my perspective it also seems that to the extent that she can’t dialogue fully with me, there are things about collaboration that she still doesn’t understand. I don’t understand how and why she sees it this way, and I’m looking forward to finding out over the coming years and generating that larger understanding.)
My exploring these questions in the second half of 2020 has also been a new phase for the project: for the first time, there was someone who actively trying to be in samesided post-judgmental dialogue with Jean and the core group that’s working closely with her, without trying to be in that group. This is part of prototyping something really important: the capacity to handle deep differences without exploding.
And… part of how we’re handling that at the moment is getting space—space that is needed on both ends and that we mutually want each other to have. Which is part of why instead of being in Waterloo, Sarah and I drove out to British Columbia.
It occurred to me this year that I’ve had a rite of passage, a kind of coming of age, every 5 years since I was 13.
In 2005, for my 13th birthday, my parents designed a whole day-long ritual for me, with many of the men in my life—family as well as my best friend, trumpet teacher, and karate sensei. It was really cool although it also felt a bit premature as I was so utterly still not an adult yet in so many senses. We need a coming of age ritual for the era of adolescence, that welcomes people to that weird liminal phase.
In 2010, I graduated high school and moved from Nova Scotia to Waterloo. While less magical than the previous event, it was much more concretely real in terms of marking a change in my life and and independence and adulthood. I remember the feeling of going to a tiny house party with the acapella group I had joined, and realizing that nobody else knew where I was. Sure, my roommate (who would 9 years later be the dear friend who hosted my personal processing retreat last December) would have worried if I’d been gone for a day or two without telling him, but nobody was waiting up for me.
In 2015, I graduated university and achieved a kind of financial independence. I had been mentally pretty done with school for a couple of years, and it felt amazing to be free of those incentives to do shoddy thinking. I called my 2015 review A Year of Freedom, based on being free from school and also free from having to get a job: I had gotten the Complice revenue to the $1000/month target I’d been aiming for as the minimum threshold on which I could live. (I was used to a very frugal lifestyle as a student, and rent in Waterloo was cheaper then than it is now.)
We’ve often talked in the context of the learning community in Waterloo about the idea of reparenting and reculturing, as a process that everyone has to go through in order to transition from the old Game A cultural operating system based on blame & coercion to the new Game B one based on systems thinking & integration.
The place I just moved out of in Waterloo is the place I’ve lived for the longest (7.5 years) except the house I grew up in (age 2 until I went to an awesome boarding school at age 14). And so in thinking about the reparenting and reculturing metaphor, there’s a sense in which I had a second experience of “growing up” there in Waterloo.
It was my second home.
It did not self-identify as a home at all though.
I don’t know the fully story of this, although I do know that for a number of years there was a sign in the front hallway, greeting those who entered with a message something like: “this is not a home. this is not a house. this is a research experiment in being human together.” I also know that Jean described that she was trying to subvert certain associations people had with home, such as “the place where mom picks up after me”.
I always liked the research experiment framing, but now I think… why not both?
I want to live in a research experiment in being human together. I also want that research experiment to feel like home for everyone involved. These are not incompatible. In fact, it seems to me that if an experiment in a new way of being human together doesn’t feel like home for people, then… further experimentation is needed until it does.
That doesn’t mean that everyone should be immediately comfortable in every way in every single moment.
Discomfort is a fact of life and trying to make it go away instantly is a recipe for disaster. But there’s a thing about your home, where if something doesn’t suit you, you can change it. Of course, if you are sharing a home, and something doesn’t suit you but suits your coinhabitant, then there’s a conversation that needs to happen there in order to (ideally) find an arrangement that suits both of you.
In principle, such conversations were welcome in my previous home-that-was-not-a-home. In practice, we often didn’t know how to have them, and things got really weird in the meantime. And this somehow feels related to me to the missing sense of home. Discomfort is part of learning, but maintaining states of discomfort doesn’t necessarily incentivize the learning that you want. It can generate compartmentalization or goodharting instead, when people are faced with issues that they don’t know how to resolve any other way.
How do we make something that is ever-improving towards what we know is possible and necessary, while also having something that works for people in the meantime?
I have outgrown the nest, and I’m heading forth to find out.
I am seeking a sense of Home for myself and others, on all scales from my own experience of this being human is a guest-house up to my domicile, country, and the world. This is partially a mindset shift but it’s also a tangible pragmatic shift in peoples’ empowerment to care for their needs individually and collectively.
If you know folks in coastal British Columbia that you think might vibe with what I’m working on, definitely put us in touch. I want to meet a lot of people over the coming year.
There is sadness for me in having left Waterloo, and there is joy.
And wherever I am, I’m free to dance the non-naïve trust dance, on all levels from physical dance (I’m thinking I might learn West Coast Swing!) to the deepest depths of cothinking and collective strategy.
And in some sense, I am always dancing.
Constantly consciously expanding the boundaries of thoughtspace and actionspace. Creator of Complice, a system for improvisationally & creatively staying in touch with what's most important to you, and taking action towards it.