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?”

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thinking that rejects other thinking

I want to point at a style of thinking that I’ll call [[thinking that rejects other thinking]].

(not sure this is the right name but it’s what I’m going with for now)

It’s a hard thing to point at.

Many have tried to point at [[thinking that rejects other thinking]], in many ways (and with many terms for it) and most of the ways that people try to point at it end up resulting in people ending up engaging in [[thinking that rejects other thinking]] about the very concept of [[thinking that rejects other thinking]], despite attempting not to. Sometimes the original articulator isn’t doing this but almost always the people around them still are. Usually the original articulator is too, at least a little.

This is unfortunate, not because [[thinking that rejects other thinking]] is bad, but because then they miss all the wisdom hiding in whatever other thinking they’re dismissing or distrusting because they’re seeing it as [[thinking that rejects other thinking]]!

Symmetrically, this is also unfortunate because it makes their own wisdom less accessible to those whose thinking they’re dismissing or distrusting.

On a meta-level, this is furthermore unfortunate because it creates a bunch of muddle around the very thing they’re trying to point at, which is an important thing to point at. (I clearly think so since I’m here trying to point at it.)

Perhaps, instead of pointing at [[thinking that rejects other thinking]], I will point at what kind of thinking isn’t [[thinking that rejects other thinking]].

Huh—perhaps I already have, by how I wrote the above paragraphs.

(If you want, you can re-read the above and feel into how I feel satisfied with it as a way of pointing at this kind of thinking while doing something different than thinking that rejects thinking myself. I genuinely wasn’t sure, when I started writing this 10 minutes ago, how I’d find a way to do it, and I feel pretty satisfied with how it turned out.)


But hey, I’m a verbal dude, and while ineffability abounds, I think it’s worth spelling this pattern out way more explicitly, giving some examples, and talking about how to navigate more effectively. So keep reading for that.

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A Collaborative Self-Energizing Meta-Team Vision

Originally written October 19th, 2020 as a few tweetstorms—slight edits here. My vision has evolved since then, but this remains a beautiful piece of it and I’ve been linking lots of people to it in google doc form so I figured I might as well post it to my blog.

Wanting to write about the larger meta-vision I have that inspired me to make this move (to Sam—first green section below). Initially wrote this in response to Andy Matuschak’s response “Y’all, this attitude is rad”, but wanted it to be a top-level thread because it’s important and stands on its own.

Hey @SamHBarton, I’m checking out lifewrite.today and it’s reminding me of my app complice.co (eg “Today Page”) and I had a brief moment of “oh no” before “wait, there’s so much space for other explorations!” and anyway what I want to say is:

How can I help?

screenshot of LifeWrite landing page

Because I realized that the default scenario with something like this is that it doesn’t even really get off the ground, and that would be sad 😕

So like I’ve done with various other entrepreneurs (including Conor White-Sullivan!) would love to explore & help you realize your vision here 🚀

Also shoutout to Beeminder / Daniel Reeves for helping encourage this cooperative philosophy with eg the post Startups Not Eating Each Other Like Cannibalistic Dogs. They helped mentor me+Complice from the very outset, which evolved into mutual advising & mutually profitable app integrations.

Making this move, of saying “how can I help?” to a would-be competitor, is inspired for me in part by tapping into what for me is the answer to “what can I do that releases energy rather than requiring energy?” and finding the answer being something on the design/vision/strategy level that every company needs.

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Building self-trust with Self-Referential Motivation

Noah asks:

I feel so incredibly much better when I don’t procrastinate, and yet I still procrastinate regularly. Why am I so resistant to classical conditioning in this context? What further questions should I ask myself / demands should I make of myself, to attack this problem?

I suspect that this is a paradox that almost everyone has encountered on some level. People want to be productive. It feels good to have a really fruitful day.

This is something we often forget, when we frame our self-improvement efforts as a fight between what we should do and what we want to do.

And note that it’s not just that people want-to-have-been-productive. It generally feels pretty good while you’re doing it too. There are exceptions, of course—some work is a grind—but in general it’s at least satisfying, if not fulfilling, to be doing good work. And even with relatively aversive work, it usually feels better to be actually making progress than to just be stewing in the feeling that you should be working but aren’t.

So here’s the million-dollar question: if it feels good to be productive, why aren’t people productive more? » read the rest of this entry »

The Unreserved YES

(This post is much more stream-of-consciousness than many of my other posts. I’m working stuff out live.)

I was doing Focusing earlier today, and reflecting on a complex, challenging decision I’m starting to feel into. I found myself remembering a video I’d watched last night. I want to share it with you, so I’ve pulled out the snippet that’s really good. It’s literally 14 seconds, and you only really need the first 5. Click to watch:

Michael Franti and this girl Jocelin have just sung a song together, and he then asks her if she’d like to sing with him onstage. As she comprehends the proposal, her face lights up.

YES!” she says.

Not “yes.”

Not “yes?”

Not “…yes…”

YEAH! I LOVE STAGE!”

When I saw that video last night, I shared it and wrote:

Interview at start, and the song… eh ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ , kinda cute.

Her utter unreserved enthusiasm at the end, both on her face and in her voice, when he’s like “Do you want to come and sing on stage with us?”…

…glorious. I’m not exaggerating.

I’ve forgotten how to say YES like that. Or maybe it’s that my desires have become complex and conflicted and so it’s never totally clear what I want. Or maybe I’m not putting myself into situations where the right question will even get asked. Or maybe I’m afraid.

I want to say YES like that. » read the rest of this entry »

On “Being Grateful for the Opportunity to Train”

There’s a pattern that I’ve noticed in several areas of practice, that I want to highlight. I think it’s a core piece of the challenge I’ve been writing about, around how to get out of internal conflicts. As of this sentence, I’m not totally sure why, but I’m hoping to be more sure by the time I reach the end of this post, and at minimum to have framed a question that we can look at together.

The pattern can be expressed as a simply trigger-action plan: if experiencing discomfort or challenge, orient towards it as an opportunity to practice.

The first place I recall hearing this was from Valentine at CFAR, who taught it as a central component of what was then called “againstness training”. The aim of againstness training was to develop the ability to notice one’s stress response (SNS = sympathetic nervous system activation) and be able to shift towards a more relaxed state.

One powerful step for relaxing the stress you’re encountering, he said, is to be glad for it. This doesn’t have to come first—you can go straight to a breathing exercise, but it helps if it comes first. Part of why it helps is that it provides a frame within which doing those breathing exercises makes sense! If you’re relating to stress as something to learn from, you’re going to be much more inclined to trying to work with it consciously rather than acting from it.

This “with it” rather than “from it” seems to me like a kind of subject-object shift, which suggests that maybe the role played by “being grateful for the opportunity to train” (as Val canonically phrased it) is helping you to take the stress as object. That seems like a good first analysis of it.

Is that all? Let’s look at another example, then see what becomes apparent.

Entering the Heart of the Sun and Moon

I’m reading this book on tantra by Ngakpa Chogyam and Khandro Dechen. It was recommended by David Chapman of meaningness.com and I can see why. » read the rest of this entry »

Transcending Blame while Hopping Mountains Together

Another personal learning update, this time flavored around Complice and collaboration. I wasn’t expecting this when I set out to write the post, but what’s below ended up being very much a thematic continuation on the previous learning update post (which got a lot of positive response) so if you’re digging this post you may want to jump over to that one. It’s not a prerequisite though, so you’re also free to just keep reading.

I started out working on Complice nearly four years ago, in part because I didn’t want to have to get a job and work for someone else when I graduated from university. But I’ve since learned that there’s an extent to which it wasn’t just working for people but merely working with people long-term that I found aversive. One of my growth areas over the course of the past year or so has been developing a way-of-being in working relationships that is enjoyable and effective.

I wrote last week about changing my relationship to internal conflict, which involved defusing some propensity for being self-critical. Structurally connected with that is getting better at not experiencing or expressing blame towards others either. In last week’s post I talked about how I knew I was yelling at myself but had somehow totally dissociated from the fact that that meant that I was being yelled at.

» read the rest of this entry »

Towards being purpose-driven without fighting myself

Lots of more abstract writing in the works, but in the meantime, an update on my personal learning process: I’m currently working on shifting out of a meta-oscillation between being intensely purpose-driven but stressed & tense and being self-compassionate & internally aligned but aimless & disoriented.

Of course, an update on my personal learning process is still going to include some abstractions!

I sketched out a 2×2 to capture these dimensions. I’m not totally satisfied with the axes or the quadrants, but the overall structure feels clear and powerful, and I’ll refine it over time. I’m trying to get more comfortable putting out drafts of things:

The ideal state is the one in the top right, » read the rest of this entry »

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.

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