posttitle = Non-Naive Trust Dance—why the name? titleClass =title-long len =37

Non-Naive Trust Dance—why the name?

“If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you, but make allowance for their doubting too” —Rudyard Kipling

I’m intending to write a whole sequence of posts that express various elements of the Non-Naive Trust Dance framework I discovered last year, and thought that a good piece to write early on would be an introduction that talks about why it has the name it does, answering in brief these three questions:

  • What do I mean by “trust”?
  • What do I mean by “non-naive trust”?
  • Why “trust-dancing”?

I suppose it’s worth noting that I don’t remember choosing a name for this thing when I discovered it last year—this was just sort of the obvious thing to call it as I was seeing it from my perspective at the time.

a graphic of two people dancing, with those questions overlaid
drawing by Silvia Bastos at my commission

What do I mean by “trust”?

My context for thinking about trust comes from my longtime colleague Jean Robertson, who points out that all trust is fundamentally trust in one’s own experience, or “self-trust” for short. Trust also needs to be qualified as trust in something in particular. There’s no general “I trust you” (or not). As someone put it:

“I trust Alice to return a $10 loan but not a $10,000 loan, Bob to return a $10,000 loan but not to babysit an infant, Carol to babysit but not with my house key, Dave with my house key but not my intimate secrets, and Ellen with my intimate secrets but not to return a $10 loan. I trust Frank if a friend vouches for him, a taxi driver as long as he’s displaying his license, and Gail as long as she hasn’t been drinking.”

From Bruce Schneier, Liars and Outliers — via Kaj Sotala, “Don’t trust people, trust their components

Elaborating on this, what the person is saying here is “based on trusting my experience of these various folks, I have predictions of what they would do, that I’m prepared to base my decisions on.” If Alice wanted to borrow $10,000, or Bob offered to babysit, this person would then be faced with a situation where their friend would be making a bid to be trusted in a way that the person actually doesn’t trust them.

That’s a tough situation to be in, particularly if it doesn’t feel easy to talk about.

In fact, it seems to me that the main thing that makes situations like this tough is that people don’t feel confident that they’ll be able to talk about it and reach some resolution.

You’ve probably had the experience of some interpersonal mistake or miscommunication, that you couldn’t find a way to get on the same page about, leading to blame or just pure frustration. This can result in background tension, periodic snapping at each other, the end of a relationship, or even harm to person or property, from vengefulness or just a momentary release of pent-up anger.

Hopefully, you’ve also experienced the reverse: a mistake that then you talk about it and come to some clarity about what happened and why, and it makes total sense in retrospect, and you come out of the whole thing feeling closer to the person than you did before.

This difference is everything when it comes to happy, wholesome, lasting relationships, in family and friendships, in business and in bed.

Thus, even though all trust is trust in something in particular, we can still find something we might call generalized trust or meta-trust:

“Generalized trust” or “meta-trust” is “trust that whatever issues might arise between us, we can talk about things in a way that is workable for both of us and leads to issues getting resolved to our mutual satisfaction in good time.”

That’s a high bar! Although of course it’s not an either/or—it’s a “to what extent” or even an “in what situations”. I’m sure you can think of relationships you have much more of this in than others. This is also partially a function of what issues are likely to arise in a particular relational form. You might have enough trust with a coworker to resolve all work issues, but if you tried to live together things would quickly turn resentful! (Or the same problem with trying to start a company with a roommate.)

Many (if not most) relationships fall short of generalized trust in any of a few ways:

  • some areas are more or less off-limits, to the point where people don’t bring them up
  • pretty much anything can be talked about, but certain topics reliably never result in any satisfying resolution
  • conversations appear to have some sort of progress, but it’s counteractive, so it ends up un-made sooner or later.

As far as I can tell, there’s sort of a feeling or stance of distrust that corresponds to an active expectation that’s the opposite of my definition of generalized trust:

“I distrust Person if I expect that issues will arise between us that we will be unable to talk about in a way that is workable for me/us and find resolution to my/our satisfaction in good time” (or “if there are already such issues”)

This is clearly partially about the other person but also partially about one’s own capacity to advocate for one’s own needs and to communicate with this person in particular, in this situation in particular. So saying “I distrust Person” is sort of saying “I distrust myself in relation to Person” or “I distrust the two-person system that we form together”. It does not mean Person is inherently untrustworthy.

We may choose to spend time around people we distrust—we have to, broadly speaking, since almost nobody has a full complement of relationships entirely with people that they can consistently resolve almost every issue that might arise—but we can’t choose to trust people despite not trusting them. We can deceive ourselves though, by dissociating from our discomfort & stifling our own internal voices that say something’s off, which is why we need to talk about “non-naive trust”.

What do I mean by “non-naive trust”?

The term “non-naive trust” has been used in the learning community I was part of in Waterloo for as long as I can remember. I’m not totally sure where it came from but it must have been internal since the only references to the phrase online are a mathematical optimization paper (no idea what it means there) and a quote from an Enspiral team member who visited us some years ago talking about various capacities her crew has. In there, she lists:

Non-naive trust (assuming that your collaborators want to build you up)

Culture eats coops for breakfast by Chloe Waretini

This parenthetical definition is exactly the opposite the very distinction that the phrase “non-naive” is supposed to make when added to the concept of “trust”. The whole point of “non-naive” is that it comes from something other than an assumption. You can’t trust what you can’t trust; “assuming” trust amounts to pretending.

(Aside: it’s easy, when you hear a longer version of something that sounds “better” than the short version, to tack those words onto the short version. I’ve seen people do this with Robert Fritz’ phrase “creative tension”—it gets swapped in for “tension” even when the precise concept of creative tension doesn’t even *grammatically* fit. I’m guessing that’s most of what’s happened here.)

Trust is important! And assuming that people want to build you up can go a long way towards forging new ground for trust. You might find, in fact, that it does help you resolve issues! But sooner or later, you’re inevitably going to encounter evidence to the contrary—if that weren’t so, we’d be living in a very different world where we don’t even need to bother talking about this—and then you’ve somehow got to figure out what to do with that!

There are a few dimensions to non-naivety, and I sense there’s something here that I don’t understand well enough to write up yet. But briefly, thinking out loud, here are two ways that trust can be naive:

Internal Conflict Naivety: sometimes we “trust” someone (or a situation) despite feeling conflicted, without resolving the conflict internally. We fall for a scam despite a part of us saying “this is too good to be true” because another part of us so desperately wants it to be true that it manages to get the other part to shut up long enough to get scammed. Some part of us trusts, some part of us distrusts, and we don’t know how to integrate the voice that distrusts. You can tell this is happening because you feel resistance in your body: or something feels off or sus or there’s a feeling of “I don’t buy it.” Even just acknowledging that can help integration a lot—you don’t necessarily need to do anything about it.

Overgeneralization Naivety: sometimes we “trust” someone unwisely, not because we suppressed our worry but because based on everything that had happened to us so far, we had generalized that this situation was safe in some way that it wasn’t. Someone who has never heard of phishing might get an email from “Bank of America” that looks trustworthy enough and it just actually doesn’t occur to them that it might be from a scammer. It’s hard to tell this is happening in the moment when you’re using the generalization, but you can sometimes proactively tease apart generalizations when you spot yourself making them.

I used the scamming example because it’s very concrete, but to be clear this also applies to getting into a dysfunctional relationship or a job that’s not a good fit for you, or buying a product you don’t need because you got sales’d at.

(Most situations of Internal Conflict Naivety likely involve some amount of Overgeneralization Naivety as well, since if the trusting part of you hadn’t overgeneralized something then you wouldn’t be inclined to trust an untrustworthy-to-another-part-of-you situation in the first place.)

It’s possible to have naive distrust of both types as well! The most bizarre Dream Mashups are instances of someone overgeneralizing some past situation onto a present one and freaking out when almost nobody else would freak out.

And this is part of where a maxim like “assume your collaborators want to build you up” can help. If you can manage to try it on (and some people may not) then your difference in stance may create a different experience of other people, that illuminates how your previous overgeneralization (eg “people always just want to tear each other down”) was too far-reaching. If however, you try to force some view in the face of evidence that even if you assume people want to build you up then they, you’ll end up compartmentalized and with a bunch of internal conflict naivety, and probably oscillation.

…which isn’t great, but sometimes that’s part of the learning process! You can’t help overgeneralize somewhat—you don’t know everything and you have to extrapolate from your past experiences. But you can learn to respond much more That’s all part of the dance.

Why “trust-dancing“?

Dancing with other people is inherently interactive and participatory.

It can be choreographed and rehearsed in advance, or improvisational. Building narrow trust in some specific capacity can be done by rehearsing some action together, like a sports team does with drills or like a Formula 1 pit crew. Building generalized, non-naive trust is inherently improvisational, because it’s about building trust in your capacity to deal with the problems you actually encounter, which you necessarily can’t plan in advance or they wouldn’t be real problems.

Trust-dancing, when it works, is trust-building (and sometimes even trustworthiness-building) but you can’t just call it “trust-building” from the outset because, well, it doesn’t always work, and you can’t know in advance. You have to step into the dance together and find out.

I might guess, based on what I know of you and what I know of me, that we could have an amazing dance together… but until we actually put on the music and feel into it in the moment, I can’t know for sure. And just because I can dance well with you, doesn’t mean I can dance well with someone else. Hell, I might not be able to dance well with the same person but a different song. And that’s not your fault, nor my fault (nor the song’s fault) but there are things both of us can do to improve how it goes, in general. Dancing is a skill.

Trust-dancing is a skill as well, and it’s learnable. For a given person, learning their love language or enneatype or reading a book they hold dear may help you trust-dance with them in particular. There are also general principles and capacities that you can learn that make it more likely that when conflict inevitably arises in any relationships, you’ll be able to sort it out to deep mutual satisfaction.

People are trust-dancing to some degree in almost any interaction, whether it’s:

  • two people who’ve just met establishing shared reference points (“Oh cool, you went to uni in Halifax? I grew up in Nova Scotia!”)
  • people revealing their religious affiliation (by wearing a cross or seeing each other at church each week)
  • rationalists meeting each other and verifying that they have similar epistemological frameworks (“I mean, my prior on that would be low, but I’m open to updating.”)
  • a taxi driver displaying his license or someone vouching for Frank (as in the quoted paragraph above)
  • two people making eye contact or nodding as they pass on the street (people’s body language can reveal friendliness, absentness, or craziness)
  • proving to a bureaucracy that you are in fact the person you say you are (by having the right answer to the questions the phone agent asks)
  • taking a roadtrip and finding out what it’s like to be in a car together for hours
  • a wedding ceremony (both on a legal level and a social level)
  • a scientific paper showing its methods and citing its sources
  • demonstrating emotional perceptiveness by picking up on facial expressions (“You seem sad… what’s up?”)
  • showing loyalty to the tribe by dunking on the outgroup (“yikes”)
  • teasing someone in a well-calibrated way (friendship is countersignalling)
  • improvising fluidly and unflappably (eg this based dude)

None of these situations is guaranteed to build trust! It depends on how it goes. If there’s a fumble and a recovery, it may build meta-trust. Sometimes a single action might increase one person’s trust in you and decrease another’s, depending on their roles in the situation or differences in their assumptions about how conversations work (eg Ask/Guess/Reveal Culture). There are no right answers. Most of the general principles I’ve figured out are in some sense about what doesn’t work. Whatever works, works.

If your plane flies, it flies. If someone shows me something and calls it a perpetual motion machine, however, then I can conclude from what I know of the laws of thermodynamics that they’re either lying or confused. Likewise, it’s possible to understand how trust-building works such that you can sometimes similarly detect that while some trust dance move worked in the short-term, the trust created was naive and thus unstable due to counteractivity/layering.

Improving at naive trust dancing would essentially be either learning how to ignore your own problems so that you forget your concerns matter and feel temporarily resolved, or on the flipside learning methods of frame control & manipulation so that you can temporarily convince other people to ignore their own concerns. Both of these don’t lead to a very satisfying life, and are also in general unstable as the unresolved problems will reassert themselves as stuckness or oscillations.

Improving at non-naive trust dancing means being able to honor and respect the distrust that exists in others and in yourself, so that you’re not fighting it as you creatively work together to find a mutually satisfying resolution to whatever arises. It means recognizing that what you did (or are doing) and what the other person did (or is doing) that is generating the issue you’re having, comes from some sort of sensemaking process, even if neither of you understands yet why.

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About Malcolm

Constantly consciously expanding the boundaries of thoughtspace and actionspace. Creator of Intend, a system for improvisationally & creatively staying in touch with what's most important to you, and taking action towards it.


Peter Mattiassi » 28 Feb 2022 » Reply

I engage in Twitter with people who hold strong, but opposing views about Mainstream media bias and govt over-reach. I witness huge distrust of govt /msm from a section of people. lately I have found myself siding more with that group on some issues i.e. Mandate protests. Twitter can turn very nasty in the form of judgment, demonizing labeling generally misrepresenting each other. Can your approach help us find a better way?

    Malcolm » 1 Mar 2022 » Reply

    One thing that I like to point out is that agreeing that something is a problem is sometimes taken to mean that you should also agree with a particular proposed solution. Being able to separate these two things can create a lot more talkaboutability, because otherwise people are just in a little verbal tug of war about every point. In order to find a solution to all of our problems at once, we need to be able to articulate all of them, without assuming that we’re going to solve my problem my way (which would create problems for you) or vice versa.

Peter » 4 Mar 2022 » Reply

Thank you Malcolm. The Kipling quote ‘if you can trust yourself…’, sets such a wonderfully high bar. When in real life conflict, such as going up against the majority and the mainstream media and the government, I find it all to easy to fall short. I seem to slide between angry resentment (a kind of ‘I know better’ place) and a numb demoralised silence. I am new to your ideas so excuse me if I am missing something basic. Do you think your ideas are transferable to this broader societal context or do they only apply to intimate relationships?

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