posttitle = Open letter: Convening an Ontario meta-protocol jam titleClass =title-long len =51

Open letter: Convening an Ontario meta-protocol jam

I wrote this addressed to a learning community of a few dozen people, based in Ontario, that evolved from the scene I used to be part of there before I left in late 2020. I’m about to visit for the first time in nearly 2 years, and I wanted to articulate how I’m understanding the purpose & nature of my visit. It’s also aimed to be a more general articulation of the kind of work I’m aiming to do over the coming years.

This writing is probably the densest, most complete distillation of my understandings that I’ve produced—so far! Each paragraph could easily be its own blog post, and some already are. My editing process also pruned 1700 words worth of tangents that were juicy but non-central to the point I’m seeking to make here, and there are many other tangents I didn’t even start down this week while writing this. Every answer births many new questions.


Convening an Ontario meta-protocol jam

To “jam” is to improvise without extensive preparation or predefined arrangements.
“Convening” means coming together, and Ontario is of course that region near the Great Lakes.
As for the “meta-protocol”…

It seems to me…

It seems to me that: consistent domain-general group flow is possible and achievable in our lifetimes. Such flow is ecstatic and also brilliant & wise. Getting to domain-general group flow momentarily is surprisingly straightforward given the right context-setting, but it seems to me that it usually involves a bit of compartmentalization and is thus unsustainable. It can be a beautiful and inspiring taste though. (By “domain-general” I mean group flow that isn’t just oriented towards a single goal (such as what a sports team has) but rather an experience of flow amongst the group members no matter what aspects of their lives or the world they turn their attention to.)

It seems to me that: profound non-naive trust is required for consistent domain-general group flow. This is partially self-trust and partially interpersonal trust.

It seems to me that: in order to achieve profound non-naive trust, people need to reconcile all relevant experiences of betrayal or interpersonal fuckery they’ve had in their life. This is a kind of relational due diligence, and it’s not optional. It’s literally the thing that non-naive trust is made out of. That is, in order for a group to trust each other deeply, they need to know that the members of that group aren’t going to betray each other in ways they’ve seen people betray each other before (or been betrayed before). Much of this is just on the level of trusting that we can interact with people without losing touch with what we know. So we either need to find a way to trust that the person in front of us won’t do something that has disturbed us before, or that we ourselves aren’t vulnerable to it like we were before, which involves building self-trust. It takes more than just time & experience to build trust—people need to feel on an embodied level why things go the way they’ve gone, and see a viable way for them to go differently.

It seems to me that: people attempt to do this naturally, whenever they’re relating, but understanding what’s going on and how to make it go smoothly can dramatically increase the chances of building trust rather than recapitulating dysfunctional dynamics by trying to escape them.

It seems to me that with enough understanding, playful persistence, and luck, it can even be possible to reach complete meta-trust. I use the term “meta-trust” to refer to “trust that we can effectively consistently care for ourselves and each other, and 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 is, trust that any distrust will be navigable.

It seems to me that: as people enter ever deeper levels of non-naive trust together, there’s a feeling of remarkable safety and ease… a sense of arriving home… a sense of being able to get to work… a breath of fresh air and a sense of being able to breathe freely in a way that was not possible before. Moreover: to think freely, feel freely, speak freely, and act freely. Humans live in cultures, and having a culture that fully welcomes you makes a difference.

It seems to me that: sometimes it’s easy to welcome each other because we seem to already be on the same page about how we see the world and what we want from our lives and each other. It also seems to me that there are ways to learn to welcome everyone, even across vast cultural chasms.

That’s how it seems to me, anyway, after having been investigating the matter in each moment of my 30 years of living—and more consciously for the last 10 years.

Does it all seem that way to you too?

If so, great! We have a ton of common ground to work with. What else do you see? Let’s jam!

If not, or somewhat but it seems that I’m missing something important or making a dangerous generalization… great! Part of what I’m trying to say here is that I know I’m missing stuff, but I don’t know what. Let’s jam! We’re both looking at reality, so if it seems one way to me and another way to you, it’s highly likely we’re looking at different aspects of it, or bringing different experiences to bear to understand it, from our different lifetimes. And I want to see what you’re seeing that I’m not, or where my generalizations break down. And it makes sense that you can’t trust my view on this wherever it seems to be missing something vital that you’re seeing.

If you don’t even want to engage with the whole thing—if my “let’s jam!” feels like an invitation that’s unwise for you to accept, then I respect that, and I’m glad you’ve got that clarity. Feel free to keep reading, or not. Feel free to let me know, or not.

It seems to me that: through taking each other’s perspectives and sharing our own, we can come to see more about all of this than we possibly could alone. Two eyes looking in the same direction out of the same face each see a slightly different world, but rather than arguing about which is right, the bodymind system leverages those differences to form depth perception. Likewise, my viewpoint and your viewpoint can combine into a clearer deeper vantage point—if we know how to do it. If we don’t, we may find we can’t even really converse while each clearly staying in touch with what we ourselves know.

It seems to me that: we’re each seeing something about how this process of combining perspectives and building trust works, and nobody is seeing everything. I don’t need to see what you see, for any absolute reason (though it may be intriguing or relevant to something I care about) but if I want to build trust with you, then that process will necessarily involve seeing something of what you see (and vice versa). We each have a sense of how trust-building works, and my sense of how trust-building works says that for a given pair or group, the process that works will be whatever satisfies the “how it must work” sense for everybody involved. This isn’t a static sense though: it can and will evolve as part of the process, as far as I can tell.

It seems to me that: there are some general principles for how trust-building necessarily works (and approaches that consistently fail) that are self-evident from the right angle and thus can be converged on by anyone investigating the question thoroughly. (Such investigation generally requires substantial dialogue with other people and substantial engagement with other questions of the nature of knowing, the nature of culture & memetics, and so on.)

It seems to me that: to the extent that people or groups are each operating by these principles, and can mutually recognize each other as doing so, this deepens trust even further and makes the trust-building process both faster and more robust.

It seems to me that: these principles are on the meta level. That is, they’re not cultural norms but rather a way of relating to norms. A vast diversity of cultures can exist on top of this cultural platform. What these cultures have in common is a certain kind of interoperability—a capacity to see and honor each other. This applies on all scales, from individual people’s microcultures to geopolitics. While I’m talking scale, I’ll add that nearly all of what I’m saying in this whole piece seems to apply in some way to the relationships between different perspectives within a person, as well.

The term “meta-protocol” is used by me and Jordan Hall and others, to refer to the way-of-being-and-relating that allows differences at any scale to be held and integrated. The meta-protocol is always in development, never finished, although (as far as I can tell) at any given moment, embodying your best understanding of the meta-protocol and developing the meta-protocol are the same move. And holding this stance is in a sense the best we can do, although our best gets better as we learn and grow.

It seems to me that: Jean Robertson’s Collaborative Circle (+C&As, etc) is one lens or one approach to embodying & developing the meta-protocol.
It seems to me that: Malcolm Ocean’s Non-Naive Trust Dance is another such lens/approach.
It seems to me that: Michael Smith’s 3rd Generation Memetic OS is a third take.
It seems to me that: Arbinger Institute’s Outward Mindset is another.
It seems to me that: Marilee Adams’s Learner Mindset is yet another.

It seems to me that: in some very important sense, there are at least as many unique takes on the meta-protocol as there are people, although they don’t all have their own names, and they don’t all know how to recognize each other. The meta-protocol can be pointed at in words, but to the extent that it is codified it’s merely a protocol (it may be a very helpful protocol!). The meta-protocol is embodied, and each person embodies it differently. We could say that it’s the embodiment of each person’s best answer to the question “what are the meta-level assumptions about how cultures need to interoperate that everyone would converge on if they were trying to converge on the answer to this question?” But—those are still just words.

It seems to me that: there’s a sense in which everybody is always already doing this, all the time. It seems this way to Jordan Hall, too. Here’s how he put it in 2019 (transcript lightly edited by me)

…if we take this phrase, that Game B is a meta-protocol for hyper-collaboration.

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 fully present, it’s omnipresent—it’s 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 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 that’s when I say hyper-collaboration, it’s something like that.

It seems to me that: it might be fun and satisfying to explore together the ways in which we’re each in touch with different aspects of the meta-protocol, and to see if we can combine our individual perspectives into larger, deeper perspectives. We might learn a lot from what happens!

For instance, I have a divergence from that quote, above! It seems to me that “stepping into it” is less of a choice and more of a move that everyone naturally and irresistibly makes if they see the reality of the meta-protocol clearly enough, and see how to step into it in a given moment without negating anything else they know.

Last I checked, this divergence I have from 2019-Jordan is also a divergence between me and Jean: she sees “mindset choice” as an crucial element of learning how to enact the meta-protocol (or “Humanity 3” or “Collaborative Culture”, in her terms). This has been a topic that has come up numerous times while I was living and working closely with Jean for much of the last decade, and may have implicitly been one of the main points of tension between us, although for a time I felt like I understood. But in 2020, it became clear to me that whatever Jean sees about the importance of mindset choice, I see things differently.

Since I don’t see it that way, I’m presented with a puzzle: what’s so important about choice that Jean is seeing, that I’m not? I’ve done some speculations on this in the last 2 years, and I have some ideas, but without dialoguing with Jean, I can’t be sure whether I’ve found a different role for choice, or if I’m actually seeing what she’s seeing.

Jean and I, and others in the scene, have sometimes framed the NNTD paradigm as a fork off of Jean’s paradigm. It seems to me that this is apt as long as we get a bit more precise here: I couldn’t possibly have forked Jean’s paradigm—I could only fork my understanding of her paradigm.

It seems to me that: I spent 2012-2020 trying hard to embody Collaborative Culture or “the H3 mindset” as Jean understood it, but the whole time I was always only ever embodying my own understanding—necessarily! And by some measures it seems to me that I had a pretty good understanding of it in many ways: I could convey it to others in ways that were insightful, I could develop new metaphors or practices that Jean and others found helpful, I could (sometimes!) embody it in relating with Jean and others and experience deep synergy.

Throughout this time, I saw deep wisdom in Jean’s viewpoint and wanted to make sure I wasn’t losing touch with that, so when concerns would arise in me that I couldn’t square with that model, I would try bringing them up with Jean as best I could, to see how she would integrate those concerns. I didn’t trust myself to integrate my concerns into my own understanding. Likewise, I trusted Jean, to assess whether I was or wasn’t “doing H3” in a given moment.

It seems to me that: this put Jean in an authority role that is antithetical to the whole meta-protocol.

In mid-2020, I realized that in order to adequately respect and trust myself and my own wisdom, I had to slow down and listen to all of the voices in me—to take all of my own perspectives, even the ones that seemed at odds with my beloved big picture paradigm that I had gotten from Jean.

This was scary, but I had to do it, because self-trust is the basis for non-naive trust in anything else.

When I made this shift, what emerged was a new self-authored paradigm (“NNTD”) that was bigger and much more whole than my previous paradigm. What makes it self-authored is that since then I’ve no longer been treating Jean as the authority or source of my worldview. From my vantage point, it would be easy to think that my new paradigm is bigger than Jean’s paradigm, but that would be confusing my old non-self-authored internalization of Jean’s paradigm with the paradigm that Jean herself actually holds.

In this way, forking the cultural operating system is different from forking an open source project, where the source code can be copied byte-for-byte exactly, and where a fork could in principle be merged back in later but only at great cost, and where forks are competing for developer time and attention. When it comes to the new cultural operating system, it seems to me that the whole point is that every single person needs their own fork, or their own version—and that these versions all need to be interoperable. The old cultural operating system is based on external authorities, but the new one is not.

I’m never going to go back to treating Jean as the authority on how collaboration works.
I don’t think Jean wants anyone to treat her as the authority on how collaboration works.
I wouldn’t want her, or anyone else, to treat me as the authority on how collaboration works.

However, Jean is the sole authority on how collaboration works for her.
Simultaneously, I’m the sole authority on how collaboration works for me.
Likewise, you are the sole authority on how collaboration works for you.

At least, that’s how it seems to me. It seems to me that it can’t work any other way. And then the puzzle is how to find out how collaboration works for us. And then the puzzle is how to find out how collaboration works for everyone. We could swap in “trust-building” or “dialogue” or perhaps some other terms here, instead of “collaboration”.

When I saw that I’m the sole authority on how collaboration works for me, but that I don’t get to tell anyone else how collaboration needs to work for them, this gave me a dramatic increase in my sense of responsibility and my sense of response-ability. If I want to be able to work with people, I’ve got to find out how to convey to them what I’m needing as part of that, in terms that are somehow compatible with what they’re needing. But also, I’m profoundly empowered to do so!

A tiny case study: if someone says “sorry” to me…

If someone said “sorry” to me, I used to mentally compare it to the Commitments & Assumptions I got from Jean, that I was aiming to embody (specifically “I commit to offering no praise, no blame, and no apology, and to reveal, acknowledge, and appreciate instead”). I would thus feel, often with some discomfort and distrust, that the person didn’t seem to be doing communication in accordance with how it’s supposed to work. Thus I found myself trying to tell people that their apology was somehow not the way to handle this sort of situation.

Essentially, I was treating the meta-protocol as a protocol, which it seems perhaps we inevitably do when we aren’t self-authoring it (this can be a useful step in the learning process). I could explain to them how apologies put one person in a power-over role, how they enact a frame of blame, why blame is confused or problematic, why the person might want to try a different approach, etc… but all of that was coming from somewhere outside. It was coming from a concept of how it’s all supposed to work.

Now, when someone says “sorry” to me, I feel how the entire act of communication reverberates in my body, and I feel whether something feels missing from what I want out of this particular experience of reconciling with them about whatever has happened. I don’t need to have a framework for why I feel like something’s missing, although that may be helpful. I can simply note, if I don’t feel reconciled, that I’m needing something different. I’m not presenting a paradigm to get the person to buy into. Rather, simply, to the extent that they want to reconcile with me, in this moment, we need to figure out a way to do that in a way that works for me, and for them. Easier said than done, sometimes!

And it might not be what I would have expected! By trusting myself to be the authority on what works for me, I’m now also free to be surprised by what works for me.

This capacity for surprising success is central to improvisation—central to the magic of the “jam session” imagery I proposed at the top.

It seems to me that: our collective development of the meta-protocol, as humanity and as those of us engaging with this writing, has a breathing-out and breathing-in quality to it: differentiation and integration, fractally on different scales.

Differentiation: for a group of people who seem to be orienting to the same single-source model of how the meta-protocol works, whether they got that model from a book or the leader of the group, it seems to me that the most important move they can make is to each find their own concerns or critiques in relation to that model and integrate those with their understanding of it, to each develop their own self-authored paradigm. Differentiation, interpersonally, though it’s integration internally.

Integration: for a group of people who are each already orienting by their own self-authored meta-protocol paradigm, whether it comes from shared roots or independent discovery, it seems to me that the most important move they can make is to bring their differences into dialogue with each other, and see if they can evolve a new paradigm together that incorporates what they both/all know, that they are all collectively the authority on. (They still aren’t collectively an authority on how collaboration works for a newcomer to the group.)

(At this point, if some new concern arises for someone that the group can’t integrate, that person might again differentiate: go on their own and allow their own paradigm to evolve divergently in order to incorporate it, then bring the new paradigm back to the group to be integrated there.)

It seems to me that: both of these situations and both of these moves are relevant to where we find ourselves at present, as a collective of people who primarily got an understanding of the meta-protocol from Jean (directly or via each other) and who now have varying degrees of self-authorship and forkedness thereof.

These dances, like contact improv, have no leader or follower—it’s up to us in each moment to figure out how to relate to one another.

So! I’m coming to Ontario to dance these dances with those who want to dance them with me.

Shall we?

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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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