posttitle = The secret to co-gnosis titleClass =short len =23

The secret to co-gnosis

Ninth and final (for now) post in “I can tell for myself” sequence.

I know the secret to co-gnosis, aka “we can tell for ourselves”. In a sentence the secret is:

Nobody and everybody knows the secret to co-gnosis.

Nobody knows the secret, in the sense that nobody can simply say “I know how it works and this is it and if you’re not doing it then well idk what to tell you but it isn’t gonna work.” There is no once-and-for-all secret, articulable or ineffable.

Everybody knows the secret, in the sense that everybody is acutely sensitive to what it feels like for their sense of “I can tell for myself” to be respected in a dialogue, and so if you’re in a dialogue with them, then the secret of how to have “we can tell for ourselves” is right there inside the “I can tell for myself” and “you can tell for yourself”. It’s whatever satisfies both.

I’ve been having trouble finishing my “I can tell for myself” / gnosis sequence, and part of why it’s been hard is that my answer to the problem I spend the sequence framing is the same thing I’m already trying to point at in most of my posts. This is the meta-protocol all over again.

And so every time I went to write the conclusion to this sequence, it felt like it was just another post I’d been meaning to write for awhile and which might stand better on its own. Having said that, since we’ve built up some new ways of talking, let’s see if I can give some reflections on the meta-protocol puzzle in terms of “I can tell for myself” and “we can tell for ourself”.

I wrote in the previous post: merely getting everybody in touch with their own knowing isn’t enough. When multiple people are both operating from a grounded sense of what they know, they tend to avoid each other because they see things differently and either don’t know how or don’t want to bother sorting out those differences. It’s HARD. But it’s possible.

Bridging between what I can tell for myself and what you can tell for yourself is an additional skill beyond each of us being in touch with our respective knowings in the first place.

On further thought… it’s a bunch of skills.

Co-gnosis Skills


Before the skill of actually bridging comes a skill of differentiation: the recognition that just because you can tell something for myself, and someone else reports that they can tell something that seems like it contradicts what you know, doesn’t mean that they’re crazy, deluded, or lying. The ability to take in that given the experiences they’ve had, things actually seem the way they seem to them. What matters to them really matters to them. What’s salient and relevant is really salient and relevant. What seems possible seems possible. What seems impossible seems impossible. In its more advanced forms, this skill is very rare—most people tend to, at a certain point, round off others’ understandings to a mere subset of their own, which they tag as confused and then reject.

(As always, I’ll give the caveat that if you are actually concerned that the person might be straight-up lying, that’s a different issue and I mostly recommend getting out of the situation as quickly and cleanly as possible.)

Differentiation brings a kind of truce, but it doesn’t on its own create a sense of “we can tell for ourself”. It’s more the basic condition from which one could even begin to bridge—to extend the bridge analogy, it is the recognition of the two cliffs and the reality of the chasm between them. Although as my twitter-friend Matthew Pierce likes to say with his Law of Radical Consensus:

Any disagreement can be restated as a form of agreement, by jointly acknowledging THAT the dispute exists

So there can be at least a meta-level sense of “we can tell for ourself that we don’t have a shared sense of what’s going on here”. That’s a real sense! That is legit progress over the kind of state that people often get in.


The next subskill could be called perspective-taking. It’s the skill of really imagining what the world looks like from the other person’s vantage point. Not just allowing that they have a different perspective than you (that makes sense to them) but getting a sense of it yourself. Seeing the specific sense that their perspective makes.

One aspect of this skill involves things like active listening, reflecting back to the person what they said. Better make sure to paraphrase though, not just repeat their words, otherwise you have no idea that you really understand the shape of what they’re saying. The deeper the paraphrase, the more potent the contact you can make.

There are other subtle aspects. Often the sense that what they’re saying makes is hidden, not in the words they’re saying but in the assumptions they’re making that are so obvious to them they seem to go without saying, even though they’d be shocking to you. So there’s another aspect of this skill which is listening to the negative space around what the person is saying, following the shape of their attention, and opening yourself up to have surprising insights.

Often the features of what’s going on that are most salient to one person in a connection are precisely those which are being systematically ignored or denied by the other person—and that’s part of why they become so salient. This is part of why my template for talking about blindspots uses such verbose and fastidious language—to try to create a scaffold for noticing that negative space.

Self-listening / taking your own perspective

As you embark on your voyage across the chasm in a boat, to see the other side, you may notice that you keep snapping back to your own perspective. That wherever their perspective seems to highlight something that’s at odds with yours, you become defensive. I might be missing some other case, but so far it seems to me that every time this happens, it’s because you don’t have a clear enough grounding in your own perspective. Your sense of how things are is more fragile than you realize, and you don’t trust that you can keep sight of it while taking a contrary perspective. This is especially likely to happen if the other person’s perspective is judgmental or contemptuous of yours, but the same principle applies: if you’re sufficiently grounded in your own perspective, then as far as I can tell, it will feel okay to orient to taking theirs. It may still be challenging, but it’ll be more like a weird fun challenge (“you… genuinely think… I’m a coward who doesn’t have the tiniest shred of integrity? you really see it that way. huh. wild. hang on, let me be with that for a moment.”).

So: insofar as this model holds, this suggests that the only workable response to defensiveness is to fortify your cliffside so that it’s strong and you no longer feel the need to defend it. One might reasonably think that doing so would increase defensiveness, but… in my experience, it doesn’t! Perhaps because the focus is on what you know, not on any ways in which others are wrong or confused. In any case, you don’t have to take my word for it: try it for yourself.

Try what, exactly? The move here is to listen to yourself thoroughly, and affirm your own perspective. To have the sensation of “YES! That IS how it seems to me! It does indeed seem that way! I might be missing something but I can tell that THIS is happening and it’s having THAT effect.” The sensation you would get if someone else reflected back to you what’s going on so perfectly that you’re like “I couldn’t have said it better myself! You totally get it!” Turns out you can get that “you totally get it” feeling internally to yourself. And in my experience it makes a surprisingly large difference for my ability to listen, when I remember to do it and take the time.

I’ve also found that others are more willing than I first expected to give me space when I say “hang on, I need to affirm my own perspective more to be able to really take yours in, give me a moment.” I guess they can tell that I’m really trying to listen to them and they want to support that. Also sometimes they feel inspired by my pausing to listen to myself—there’s a sense of like “wait, I could do that…?!”

Bridging itself

The bridging might start to happen on its own at this point, but if it somehow doesn’t, then this part is essentially the interpersonal equivalent of the “juxtaposition” step from the emotional coherence framework. You hold your view in one hand, you hold their view in another hand, and you bring you hands closer together to see what emerges when they come in contact. Sometimes I do this (or guide other people to do this) with their actual hands as a way to enact the juxtaposition.

Other times I use the metaphor of the left eye and the right eye forming depth perception, and I’ll assign each viewpoint to an eye. This metaphor is… barely a metaphor, for what’s going on here. There are two perspectives—that are different!—and you’re aiming to find the deeper view of what’s going on that synthesizes the two flat views. This is what’s happening.

My sense is that it actually happens via the same means in which it happens in your visual cortex. Which is to say, it’s not a thing that one does deliberately, so much as an emergent process that happens given the right degree of challenge—not too much, not too little, and enough ease to let it unfold.

Sharing the bridge

In some cases, the shared sense of things shows up quite dynamically in the conversational space between the two people. It dawns on us, together, how both of our views are of the same whole. In other cases, one person gets a clearer sense of it first, and then there’s something to be done to reflect the view back to the other person.

You’re aiming for the point where it’s now obvious to both of you what’s going on—obvious like how if you were sitting with someone in a room and something made a weird sound in the next room over, and you both immediately turned to each other with surprised & concerned looks on your faces, it would be obvious to both of you that you just heard that sound and that neither of you were expecting it. It’s not that you “agree”, but that there’s a shared sense of the sound. You still have your own sense of the shared sense, but it’s now participating in a larger whole.

It seems to me that unless we get to that sense of shared obviousness, I can’t really be sure that the bridge I think I’ve built is really making contact with what’s going on for them.

However, sometimes I’ve found myself feeling like I have a sense of why someone sees things the way they do, and I can see a rough sense of how that fits with how I see things, but I have some sense that the conversation isn’t one they’re ready to have for some emotional reason or something. I would caution most people from assuming this (and I rarely assume it myself) though because it can function as an excuse. Importantly, in this situation I don’t really feel like I get to say that I know what’s going on for the other person or how it all fits together. All I will claim to have is a guess.

One other secret, about co-gnosis

As I gestured at in Guru dynamics: “I can show you how to trust yourself”, in talking about the paradox of the student trusting themselves by rejecting what the teacher says… every sense everyone has or expresses exists somehow in relation to their “I can tell for myself”. Even if it’s something they took someone’s word for, they still have somewhere an embodied knowing of why they did that, which is driving their inclination to use it. Even if they’re totally overreaching and speaking as though they know things that they obviously can’t know… there’s still something they know that’s underneath that. No matter how someone communicates—and some ways are of course much more workable than others—they are offering you an interface with their sense of things when they do. And, seeing this, your options are:

  • find a way to work with it in the way it presents itself to you
    • (which can involve meeting it where it’s at, then negotiating from there for a different interface)
  • try to do so, and fall short
  • discern that it’s not worth it

I used to think there was an additional option, of dismissing someone else as speaking from a place that wasn’t relevant or didn’t matter or couldn’t be dialogued with. Seeing what I see now, that option shows itself as an illusion. If I were to take it (and probably sometimes I still do when I’m not paying attention) it would be tantamount to blaming the other person for my inability or unwillingness to communicate with them. I’m not blaming myself either—their inability or unwillingness is still theirs—but mine is forever mine, and I will own it.

I name all of this here because one of the traps people fall into, which seems to me to be one of the main obstacles to experiencing the divine ecstasy and pragmatic power of collective consciousness, is assuming that self-trust always has a particular flavour to it, and rejecting anything that doesn’t taste right to them.

Closing remarks

Remember what I said at the top: nobody and everybody knows the secret to co-gnosis.

What I’ve just laid out is my model of how co-gnosis / “we can tell for ourself” works. It seems to generalize pretty well! But it’s just mine. Perhaps there are some twins in Tuvalu who do co-gnosis some completely different way. Perhaps you can tell for yourself that I’m missing something key. If so, welcome to the meta-protocol conversation!

PS: this “I can tell for myself” sequence has a huge shoutout to give to my friend Michael Smith, who helped me see the general structure of this kind of knowing (which he often calls “gnosis”, although he loves my phrasing of it and was part of encouraging me to write up “I can tell for myself” and editing the posts). He’s been prototyping learning containers and coaching practices that help people get in touch with their knowing, while doing his best to avoid the guru traps I described where the person’s feedback loop on whether they’re tapping their own gnosis ends up getting routed through the teacher’s responses, muddling the whole thing. One way he does that is by pointing out gnosis through looking at math. Anyway, I’ve been tackling more of the co-gnosis end of the puzzle and would be happy to talk about that, but if you’re reading this and you’re more curious how to deepen your own “I can tell for myself” sense, I would definitely recommend you check out his coaching or online container, and see if his approach resonates for you.

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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.

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