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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Work With Me – new site page

I’ve recently added a new page to my website called Work With Me. The page will evolve over time but I’m going to write a short blog post about the concept and share the initial snapshot of how it looks, for archival purposes.

Why a “Work With Me” page?

There’s a lot of stories I could tell here. I’ll tell a few slightly fictional versions before getting to the actual series of events that occurred.

One fictional version is that I was inspired by Derek Sivers’ /now page movement but I wanted something that created more affordances for people to connect with me, including regarding opportunities that I’m not actively pursuing now on my own. This is true in the sense that I was thinking about /now by the time I published the page, and in the sense that I would love to see Work With Me pages show up on others’ sites. You could be the first follower, who starts a movement!

Another fictional version is that I was thinking about my Collaborative Self-Energizing Meta-Team Vision and wondering how to make more surface area for people to get involved. I’m someone who thinks a lot about interfaces, not just between humans and products but also between humans and other humans, and it occurred to me that there wasn’t a good interface for people to find out how to plug in with me to work on self-energizing projects together. So I made this page! This was also on my mind, but it’s still not quite how it happened.

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Lecturing & Learning: Emotional Coherence Case Study

This post is adapted from notes to myself plus a bit of context I added for some friends I shared the notes with. It’s a cool example of how gradually making an unconscious pattern more conscious can lead to transformational insight, and the specific pattern also seems like one that’s likely to resonate for a lot of other people with similar experiences to mine. I’m willing to bet that other people who’ve interacted with me a lot directly are familiar with this pattern as it shows up in me—and I’d be interested to hear about that!

For the last week or so, my partner Sarah and I have been doing a lot of active noticing a particular tone I sometimes have, which Sarah hates, and she described it as being lectured. It took many months of work on both our parts for her to be able to articulate the feeling so clearly as “lectured” and for me to be able to acknowledge that there’s something there even though I wasn’t sure what or why. While I could tell it didn’t work (because it made Sarah defensive) I didn’t initially have any intrinsic motivation to speak any differently. More on that work and on motivation to change, below.

Anyway, since we’ve gotten a better handle on that, I’ve gotten a lot better at noticing when I’m doing the Lecturing thing, often via Sarah making a 🤨 face at me, but sometimes from my own stance or tone. As I’ve been integrating that unconscious drive, I’ve started often interrupting myself midsentence, something like “So you see, it’s really important… (S: 🤨) …that I lecture you about this. You need a lecture.”

And speaking that explicitly defuses a lot of the tension, which has already been great. Yesterday some additional integration happened, via gentle prompting from Sarah. She was saying something and I was suddenly experiencing an immense urge. I had enough mental space to hold that urge, and I strained to speak: “It. Is. So. Hard. For. Me. To. Not. Lecture. You. Right now.” I started to try to convey something about my experience of that to her, and she very gently and groundedly suggested “is there something you might want to do for yourself, first?”

I tuned into that part of me and it voiced internally “why are you so fucking stupid?!?

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2020: Free to Dance

In my 2019 yearly review: Divided Brain Reconciled by Meaningful Sobbing, I experimented for the first time in a while with setting a theme for the upcoming year: Free to Dance. And lo, while I didn’t think about it that often, it’s proved remarkably relevant, in ways I couldn’t have anticipated.

The original concept of the phrase came in part from having just picked up Bruce Tift’s book Already Free: Buddhism Meets Psychotherapy on the Path of Liberation, which by early January I could tell would be a major book of my year. Another related dimension of it was something I realized in doing some of the emotional processing work last year, which was that parts of me sometimes still kind of think I’m trapped at school where I’m supposed to sit still at my desk, among other indignities.

The other main piece was observing at a couple of points that I sometimes seem to move through the world as if I’m dancing, and other times much more heavily. During an exercise at the Bio-Emotive retreat midsummer, we were asked to reflect on a question something like “how would I be if I were showing up most brilliantly/beautifully?” And what arose for me is something like “I think I’d always be dancing.”

So all of these layers mean that the social isolation of the pandemic didn’t put much of a specific damper on this life theme, even though I was hardly free to go to dance events (except some lovely outdoor bring-your-own-partner contact improv events that a friend hosted). I had been intending to travel the world a bit, to San Francisco, perhaps Austin, perhaps the UK, and none of those visits happened.

What did happen?

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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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To trust or not to trust is NOT the question

This post was adapted from a comment I made responding to a facebook group post. This is what they said:

Trusting isn’t virtuous. Trusting should not be the default. Care to double crux me?

(I believe that this was itself implicitly responding to yet others claiming the opposite of it: that trust is virtuous and should be a default/norm.)

My perspective is that it’s not about virtue at all. It’s just about to what extent you can rely on a particular system (a single human, a group of humans, an animal, an ecosystem, a mechanical or software system, or whatever) to behave in a particular way. Some of these ways will make you inclined to interact with that system more; others less.

We are, of course, imperfect at making such discernments, but we can get better. However, people who are claiming it’s virtuous to trust are probably undermining the skill-building by undermining peoples’ trust in whatever level of discernment they do have: is it wrong if I don’t trust someone who is supposedly trustworthy? The Guru Papers illustrates how this happens in great detail. I would strongly recommend that book to anyone wanting to understand trust.

If I were to gesture at a default stance it would be neither “trust” nor “distrust” nor some compromise in between. It would be a stance of trust-building. » read the rest of this entry »

Transcending Regrets, Problems, and Mistakes

One of the biggest things I’ve learned over the past year is how to truly let go of regret.

(Psst: if you’ve got Spotify, hit play on this track before you keep reading. Or here’s a Google Play link. I’ll explain later.)

A few months ago, in September, I went to a tantra yoga workshop called the Fire & Nectar retreat. The event involved a fair bit of yoga and meditation, but what was most powerful for me were the teachings on non-dualism. A lot of it made deep, immediate sense to me, and there were also pieces that were met with a lot of resistance.

One of the most challenging things that our teacher Hareesh said was this:

If you had a chance for a do-over, would you choose for everything to go exactly the same?
If not, you have not yet surrendered.

He clarified that this wasn’t talking about a dualistic sort of surrender, more like surrendering to reality. I seem to recall he was quoting someone, but I can’t find a source in my notes or on the internet. At any rate, this was a thing that he said, and I immediately recognized it as containing a perspective that I didn’t understand. A perspective that I feared.

I recognized it as a perspective that I’d been in a battle with for several years.

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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.

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Beyond “Giving Feedback”: Co-Attending & Attunement

The process “giving feedback” is outdated. Or limited, at least.

Let’s do a post-mortem on a post-mortem, to find out why…

My friend Benjamin (who works with me on both Complice and the Upstart Collaboratory culture project) and I had an experience where we were making some nachos together, and… long story short: most of them burnt. We then spent a bit of time debriefing what had happened. What was the chain of events that led to the nachos burning? What had we each experienced? What did we notice?

This yielded a bunch of interesting and valuable observations. One thing that it did not yield was any plans or commitments for how we would do it differently in the future. Anything like “So when [this] happens next time, I’ll do [that], and that will act as a kind of preventative measure.”

Given that lack of future plans or commitments, one might ask: was it a waste of time? Did we not really learn anything? Will things just happen the same way again? » 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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