In which I answer 6 questions from a friend about my Non-Naive Trust Dance framework. I’ve said a lot of this before, but kind of all over the place, so here it is collected together, as yet another starting point.

The questions:

  1. What is the non-naive trust dance, and when are people doing it? (Is it a practice? A worldview? An explanatory theory?)
  2. What is it not? How do I tell between NNTD and closely related things?
  3. What is it good for? What will it help me do?
  4. How do I know when I am doing it, or not doing it?
  5. How do I learn how to do it better?
  6. What is it not helpful for? When should I use something else?

My experience of writing this post has caused me to have a sort of meta-level answer to a question I see behind all of these questions, which is “why is the NNTD so important? should I care?” And my answer is that I don’t actually think NNTD is that significant on its own, and that most people should care if it intrigues them and seems useful and not otherwise. What makes the NNTD important is that it’s a new & necessary puzzle piece for doing world-class trust-building, which is necessary for making progress on collective consciousness, and that is important. But if you’re not working on that, and NNTD doesn’t interest you, then maybe you want to put your attention elsewhere!

1. What is the non-naive trust dance, and when are people doing it?
(Is it a practice? A worldview? An explanatory theory?)

It is, perhaps unfortunately, all 3 of those things. I would say that in some sense it’s mostly a worldview or a theory, and any practice that emerges out of that could ultimately be described as simply being what it is. Certain practices make more or less sense in light of the theory, but it’s descriptive rather than prescriptive.

So as a worldview, the NNTD view sees all beings as constantly engaged in trust-dancing. “Trust” and “truth” have the same root, and trust can be thought of as essentially subjective truth, so trust-dancing with reality is figuring out what seems true from your vantage point. Where naivety comes in is that humans have a tendency to try to interfere with each others’ sense of what’s true, resulting in apparent trust that’s actually layered on top of repressed distrust.

As an explanatory theory, the NNTD explains why certain attempts to build trust consistently fail—which could be summarized as “they try to do so naively, so they either fail immediately or appear to work then fail later”.

As a practice, one could speak of the meta-level practice of keeping the worldview & theory in mind, while trust-dancing (ie while relating with oneself or others, ie always).

2. What is it not? How do I tell between NNTD and closely related things?

There are a few types of closely related things.

The NNTD is an articulation of the meta-protocol, and is not to be confused for a protocol. A protocol is a form, ie a set of scripts or behaviors, that says “we can make communication work (better) if we agree to do it this way”. NVC (NonViolent Communication) is a great protocol. Many protocols also work somewhat if used by only one party. The meta-protocol is an emptiness that says “right, but what about when that inevitably breaks down, whether because we want to use different protocols, or we’re conceiving of the supposedly-shared protocol differently, or the protocol is inadequate?”

The NNTD framework is my articulation of the meta-protocol, and is not to be confused for someone else’s articulation of the meta-protocol. Any articulation or instantiation of the meta-protocol is incomplete and has blindspots, and the measure of a given approach to the meta-protocol is how it navigates when those inevitably result in friction.

It’s helpful to remember that the NNTD emerged as a patch on a specific existing model which most people have never heard of since it was only used in a community I was part of. As a result, the most salient distinguishing features of NNTD from my perspective aren’t always meaningful or relevant to people who don’t already have the existing model. That model is also really good! So I want to share some version of it that has the patch applied. And I’m still figuring out the extent to which to frame that stuff as “part of NNTD” or as something else. Some of it untwists and simplifies itself with the patch applied, but I’m still figuring out how it all fits together.

More concretely, one thing that’s definitely not NNTD, however close it seems: any perspective that asserts or even implies that there’s a right way to communicate or relate, and that if Alice does those things and Bob doesn’t respond well, that there’s sort of nothing else Alice can do—that the latter person is defecting. Certain types of responses (or modes of being) are way more workable than others, and it’s possible to discern that someone is in quite a closed mode, but there’s never a point when there’s nothing you can do and you just have to wait for them to choose a different mindset. There’s only a point when you decide you’re done trying to come up with a new way to connect (eg to become an invalid target for their projection) either for now or for good.

3. What is it good for? What will it help me do?

Grokking the NNTD will augment whatever existing relational skills and techniques you have—protocols etc. Those will still work when then do, and when they fail, it will give you an orientation to respond creatively and courageously rather than getting stuck.

Relationships are really precious, and so it’s so vital to be able to meet others where they’re at, to build common ground and repair ruptures. Grokking the NNTD has made me way better at reconciliation pretty much across the board, whether an apology to a member of my co-housing complex for a guest’s loudness early in the morning, or a tangled conversation with an old friend where he was frustrated that I was theorizing about his frustrations with our interactions rather than being emotionally impacted. I know how to listen to people (when I remember to apply it and figure out how to do so) and it feels like something I want to do now, rather than effortful.

Grokking how the NNTD applies internally will help you listen to yourself, which is both intrinsically worthwhile and beautiful, and necessary for effectively trust-dancing with others. (see Internal Trust Dancing)

The more you learn to listen to yourself, the fewer unpredictable explosions will happen and the fewer reconciliations you may need, at least of a certain kind. A lot of the time when something goes wrong, when we look back we realized that we were ignoring a voice that was raising the concern well before things fell apart.

4. How do I know when I am doing it, or not doing it?

You’ll know you’re doing it when you can utterly respect that any way in which someone can’t trust you, they can’t trust you. Maybe they used to trust you in that way, but then something happened and now they can’t. Maybe other people trust you in that way (maybe you trust yourself) but they don’t. So your options are:

  • ask them to pretend to trust, or act as if, even though they don’t
  • do something or say something different, to see if that earns their trust (it may not, even if either or both of you think it should)
  • accept that for now, they can’t trust you in that way (and perhaps find a better boundary, given that)

You’ll know you’re doing it when you can accurately gauge how deeply someone trusts you (and vice versa) and either work within those boundaries or expand that trust by changing the reality they experience with you, not by ‘changing their mind’. This contrasts with trying to get people to ‘just trust you’ because you want them to trust you and you want to feel trustworthy, or because you think that they should trust you for some reason.

5. How do I learn how to do it better?

So there’s sort of two things here. One is “how do I get better at trust-building and trust-dancing in general?” and the other is “how do I deepen my practice of the NNTD framework in particular?” For some people, the leverage point for improving their trust-dancing might be in learning some specific protocol, such as NVC, or in practicing authentic relating.

But then, if you find that someone hates your NVC language when you talk about your observations and needs, or that they think your authentic reveals sound like bullshit, remember the meta-protocol principle: forms are just forms, and if the form isn’t working, let go of it and tune into the situation and try to figure out what will work. This involves respecting 

One specific way you can practice is by reframing anything frustrating someone says about you or your relationship, into the form “they can’t trust that X”. This could be thought of as a sort of advanced form of I-statements. I sometimes spell it out even more concretely, as “it would feel a particular way in their body to trust this, and they don’t feel that”.

Some examples:

If someone says “you’re always late“, in some sense what they probably mean is something more like “I can’t trust you to be on time [or to let me know, or…]”.

If someone says “you’re not listening“, in some sense what they mean is “I can’t trust that you’re listening“. This is a classic intractable conflict, because they can’t know if you’re listening (and you may know you are). But what they do know is that there is a thing it would feel like if they knew you were listening, and they don’t feel that. You can’t argue with that! And you don’t need to. You can focus instead on creating the feedback loop that would allow them to see that you’re listening (to the extent you in fact are!)

If someone says “this Nonviolent Communication is bullshit”, in some sense what they’re saying is “I can’t trust that there isn’t some sort of hostile intent hidden under this supposedly nonviolent language” or even “I can’t trust that something about this interaction won’t [emotionally] harm me [perhaps accidentally]”. You might have reason to think otherwise, but maybe they’re used to people communicating similarly to you in some way that fucks with them.

This might be easiest to do first in a retrospective sort of way. Think back to a recent conflict or tense interaction you had with someone, and try to imagine what it was they couldn’t trust about you. You can also reframe frustrations you’ve had with others as being about what you can’t trust about them, and self-validate that you can’t trust it, even if there’s a demand (implicitly or explicitly) from them that you trust.

Once you’re familiar with this shift, you might be able to make this move live in a conversation, for your own distrust or someone else’s. Whether you use the specific language here (“you/I can’t trust that…”) is less important than seeing what that implies and communicating in light of that.

Going meta here, suppose someone says “idk what you’re trying to do with all this “you can’t trust” language but it seems like manipulation”. Internally you may want to note that it seems they can’t trust that you’re not somehow manipulating them, but externally you’re… probably going to want to use different language when you respond. I’d probably say something like “Okay, legit. doesn’t seem that way to me but if it seems that way to you then I’m not gonna ask you to see it differently.”

6. What is it not helpful for? When should I use something else?

If you’ve got enough trust for the situation you’re in, and things are flowing smoothly, just roll with it! No need to break out the distrust-untangling kit that is NNTD. Same if your intentional community has processes that it uses and the processes are working, and there isn’t any sense of going in circles.

Also, as in the “going meta” example above, if you’re trying to “use NNTD” and it doesn’t seem to be working, try something else! There’s no right way to do it, there’s just what works in context. (Secretly, this is kind of the spirit of NNTD in the first place. But you may have some useful feedback for me about a way in which some NNTD lens backfired for you!)

Honestly, while a lot of my writing is written to be relevant to everyone, there’s only one group of people that I’d recommend prioritize majorly grokking the NNTD, which is people who are trying to do leading edge work on cultural evolution, eg with Game B, or what Robert Gilman calls The Planetary Era, or if you’re trying to create a “noncoercive” culture.

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.

Focus on what matters
Check out Complice, a web-app that I built to help people achieve their personal & professional goals. Complice logo
Follow me on Twitter!