posttitle = The meta-protocol for human trust-building titleClass =title-long len =42

The meta-protocol for human trust-building

A protocol is a set of behaviors and expectations for interaction, whether explicit, such as Non-Violent Communication, or just the unspoken cultural norms of any social group. Shared protocols can dramatically increase people’s ability to collaborate and trust each other. But trying to get everyone to operate the same way is imperial, like trying to get everyone to speak the same language, and thus generates a ton of resistance if you try it.

The meta-protocol is the translation process, the dance by which trust is built between and within people. The meta-protocol is actually relevant even if two people think they’re already following the same protocol, because inasmuch as that protocol is inadequate… 

  • not able to be used for a particular situation
  • ambiguous and understood differently by each person
  • a person isn’t fully bought into the protocol as stated thus is unable to consistently use it

…the meta-protocol is what allows them to notice that and iteratively improve whatever they’re doing and patch those gaps. (Such patches might produce a new ongoing implicit or explicit protocol, or not.)

No matter how perfect a hypothetical protocol might be, it’s impossible to systematically address everything that arises in the complex experience of being human together. There will be gaps, including during the learning process for how people can come to use a protocol consistently. The meta-protocol is whatever fully and completely answers the question of “well, then what do you do in the meantime, or when those gaps occur?”

Thus the meta-protocol is simultaneously the process by which people learn to become deeply trustable as collaborators as well as the process by which two strangers who are both already skilled at collaborative trust-dancing would come to be able to recognize that fact about each other and be able to trust each other (and work out any remaining points of concern).

Perhaps seemingly paradoxically, for developing the meta-protocol, there’s a way in which the process is itself the output, just at increasing degrees of effectiveness. The meta-protocol simultaneously recognizes that there’s a qualitatively different and potent cultural attractor basin possibility (which might be called Game B or Planetary Era or Learner Mindset) than what is ordinarily possible (ie Game A or Empire Era or Judger Mindset) while also recognizing that these possibility fields are not fundamentally separate and no given action is “not Game B”, even if it harms someone or generates distrust in a given person in a given moment.

The meta-protocol is the process by which our integrities combine into a larger integrity, instead of fighting for turf, but Game A is still made out of integrity. Everything is made out of integrity.


Another way to point at the meta-protocol is with these questions/koans:

  • Who gets to decide?
    Who gets to decide who gets to decide?
  • In what language do we negotiate?
    In what language do we negotiate what language to conduct our negotiation in?
  • Shall we take this action?
    Shall we vote on whether to take this action?
    Shall we vote on whether to vote on whether to take this action?
    Shall we vote on whether this vote needs 50% or 60% to pass?
    Shall we vote on what to do if we can’t decide whether or not to vote?

I got this term “meta-protocol” from this video by Jordan Hall, but I was already looking at this exact question. My framework for it is called the Non Naive Trust Dance. Put another way, I call embodiedly engaging with the meta-protocol question “non-naive trust dancing”. And we’re all doing that all the time, just more or less effectively, and more or less self-awarely.

Part of how I know Jordan and I are thinking about the same general thing when we say “meta-protocol” is that it was obvious to me from the outside that people are always already doing this just to greater or lesser degrees on different levels… and while working on this post I searched for anything else by Jordan about it aside from the video, and found this podcast transcript where he says:

Jordan: This phrase “hyper-collaboration” makes the proposition that […] everyone is currently playing Game B. But you might be playing Game B at level zero. Meaning that… it is always—it’s fully present, it’s omnipresent, it’s in the field of play. And at any point, you could simply choose to step into it. And if you did, you would be able to move from zero to something epsilon [a tiny amount] greater than zero. And then you begin the process of more.

So it’s not like there’s 10 people who are playing Game B, but rather everyone is. But most people aren’t consciously choosing to do so in a way that will increase their skillfulness in collaboration with other people. So when I say “hyper-collaboration”, it’s something like that.

EP26 Jordan Hall on the Game B Emergence (this is a link to the podcast audio; I edited the transcript quoted above to match the audio since the transcript linked above is “rough” and requests not to be quoted without checking)

There’s only one meta-protocol, but there may be many different attempts to instantiate the meta-protocol, and part of the puzzle is how they go about recognizing each other and translating between their approaches.

This is why I think it’s really helpful to have separate terms to talk about:

  • a given person’s framework for the meta-protocol (eg my NNTD framework)
  • the meta-protocol as the single general attractor for all frameworks that are iterating towards ever more general and workable solutions to collaboration, coordination, and shared sensemaking

I recently saw a recorded conversation of Jordan for instance in which he and someone were having trouble getting shared reality about some conflict, and my experience was that he seemed to be missing some trust-building & frame-dialoguing moves that were really obvious from my vantage point. It’s possible, of course, that he’s aware of those potential moves and there was some other factor I was unaware of that made it unworkable to make those moves, but my guess is that this is just a facet of the meta-protocol that he’s spent less time developing (it’s sort of the central one I’ve been focusing on—respecting and honoring distrust).

So as we all dance together, with an aim to increase our general collaboration capacity (without becoming naive of course) we’ll learn from each other and get a clearer and clearer picture of how it all comes together. And this is the meta-protocol and the way the meta-protocol is created. We can’t do it alone, and we can’t do it in isolated groups.

In a sense, each person working on this will inevitably have their own take on how it works; anyone trying to operate by someone else’s framework will run into conflicts between [their interpretation of] it and what they themselves know from experience, at which point ideally they can create a fork of the other person’s framework that they can critique & iterate on internally, rather than having to bring their concerns back to the external source of the framework. Talking about these concerns can be very fruitful for a meta-protocol developer if the developer is able to listen, but often the concerns fall squarely in the blindspots of the developer, so this is difficult.

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About Malcolm

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.



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