Relationship Panarchy

“Relationship Panarchy” is a term that I coined to talk about a model of relationships, that can function both as a lens through which any relationship dynamic can be viewed (including retrospectively) or can function as an explicit intentional way-of-operating. Actually operating in accordance with this view is something that no humans I know are yet masters of, but there are an increasing number of us trying. So to some extent, at this phase it can function as a kind of placeholder, similar to how “Game B” is a placeholder for “whatever transcends and outcompetes the Game A cultural operating system that has been running the show for 10,000 years”. And, like Game B, we can say a few things about it even while it’s in the process of coming into view.

The one-sentence summary is “Relationship Panarchy is a model of relationships that’s like Relationship Anarchy, but instead of being individualist, it’s oriented to caring for the whole systems that support the relationships and people in them.”


So: there’s this concept “polyamory”. For some people, it tends to come with a bunch of structure implied, such as “primary partners” and terms like “metamour”. For others, it’s basically a synonym for “non-monogamy”.

“Non-monogamy” is able, by being a negation, to imply less structure, but it isn’t sufficiently general because:

  1. it doesn’t allow for Game B operating-system relationship configurations that read as monogamy on the old map because they involve two people being sexually exclusive
  2. it still over-emphasizes romantic relationships as primary, by negating them

One model that seems to be more open-ended is known as “Relationship Anarchy”. From Wikipedia:

Relationship anarchy (sometimes abbreviated RA) is the belief that relationships should not be bound by rules aside from what the people involved mutually agree upon. If a relationship anarchist has multiple intimate partners, it might be considered as a form of non-monogamy, but distinguishes itself by postulating that there need not be a formal distinction between sexual, romantic, or platonic relationships.

Relationship anarchists look at each relationship (romantic, platonic or otherwise) individually, as opposed to categorizing them according to societal norms such as ‘just friends’, ‘in a relationship’, or ‘in an open relationship’.

I really liked this idea for awhile, but eventually I realized that the imagery of anarchy as such evokes a rather individualist orientation to relationships, to a degree that from my perspective is not only undesirable but technically not even possible. Autonomy is important, and so is connectedness, and the two are not at odds but fundamentally made of each other. Each limit creates new freedoms and each freedom creates new limits.

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Dispel your justification-monkey with a “HWA!”

Justification—ie a normative explanation, as opposed to a causal one—is sometimes necessary. But, for many of us, it’s necessary much less often than we feel it is.

The reason we justify more often than we need to is that we live in fear of judgment, from years having to explain to authorities (parents, teachers, bosses, cops (for some people)) why things went differently than they “should have”. This skill is necessary to avoid punishment from those authorities.

We often offer justifications before they’re even asked for: “Wait I can explain—”

With friends, though, or in a healthy romantic partnership, or with people that we have a solid working relationship with, it is quite apparent that this flinch towards justification is actually in the way of being able to effectively work together. It is:

  • unhelpful for actually understanding what happened (since it’s a form of motivated cognition)
  • an obstacle to feeling safe with each other
  • a costly waste of time & attention

And yet we keep feeling the urge to justify. So what to do instead? How to re-route that habit in a way that builds trust within the relationships where justification isn’t required? How to indicate to our conversational partners that we aren’t demanding that they justify?

There are lots of ways to do this—here’s one. » read the rest of this entry »

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 »

Understanding understanding

How do you know that you’ve been understood?

This question is one I think about a fair bit, and part of what motivated me to write the jamming/honing blog post.

If I’m saying something something really simple and hard to misunderstand, all I basically need to know is that the message was received and the listener isn’t confused. for example “Hey Carla, I left the envelope outside your room.” If Carla says “OK” then I can be pretty sure she’s understood. (Unless of course she misheard me saying something else reasonable.) A slight modification of this would be a situation where the information is straightforward but detailed—and the details matter. In these situations, often the entire message is recited verbatim. A classic example would be when a number is spoken over the phone, and the listener echoes each set of 3-4 digits.

Gauging understanding via re-generating

But when communicating something more complicated or nuanced, it’s usually not enough for the speaker to just get a “K” in response. If I’m trying to convey a model to you, one common way for us to verify that you’ve understood the model is for you to say something that you would be unlikely to be able to say if you hadn’t. This could take the form of explaining the model in a new way: “ahh, so it’s kind of like Xing except you Y instead of Z” or it could involve generating an example of something the model applies to.

I think we do this intuitively. Responding to an explanation with “K” potentially implies a lack of having engaged with the details. More like “You’ve said some things and I’m not arguing with them.”

On the International Space Station, the American astronauts would speak to the Russian cosmonauts in Russian, and the Russians would reply back in English (source). The principle is that it’s much easier to tell if someone has your language confused than it is to tell if you’ve correctly interpreted something in a foreign language.

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The Third Kind of Expectation

I wrote a post last year on two different kinds of expectations: anticipations and entitlements. I realized sometime later that there is a third, very important kind of expectation. I’ve spent a lot of good time trying to find a good name for them but haven’t, so I’m just calling them “the third kind of expectation”. On reflection, while this is unwieldy, it is an absolutely fantastic name by the sparkly pink purple ball thing criterion.

First, a recap on the other two kinds of expectations in my model: anticipations and entitlements. An anticipation is an expectation in the predictive sense: what you think will happen, whether implicitly or explicitly. An entitlement is what you think should happen, whether implicitly or explicitly. If your anticipation is broken, you feel surprised or confused. If your entitlement is broken, you feel indignant or outraged.

I made the claim in my previous article that entitlements are in general problematic, both because they create interpersonal problems and because they’re a kind of rationalization.

But isn’t entitlement okay when…?

Since then, some people have pointed out to me that there’s an important role that entitlements play. Or more precisely, situations where an angry response may make sense. What if someone breaks a promise? Or oversteps a boundary? It’s widely believed that an experience of passionate intensity like anger is an appropriate response to having one’s boundaries violated.

I continue to think entitlements aren’t helpful, and that what you’re mostly looking for in these situations are more shaped like this third kind of expectation.

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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 »

Acts of Speech and States of Mind

Much of this post was originally drafted a couple years ago, so the personal stories described in here took place then. I’m publishing it now in part because the novella that inspired it—Ted Chiang’s Story of your Lifehas recently been made into a feature-length movie (Arrival). In some contexts, it might make sense to say that this post may contain spoilers for SOYL; in this particular one, that would be hilariously ironic. Even after reading this post, the story will be worth reading.

This post begins, like so many of mine, with a conversation with Jean, the founder of the Upstart Collaboratory, where she and I and others are practicing the extreme sport of human relating. Jean remarked that a conversation she’d had earlier that day had been really good, then noted that she’d already told me that.

I replied, “Well, yes, and it was meaningful to me that you said it again. On the most basic level, it implies that on some level you felt you hadn’t yet conveyed just how good the conversation had been.” Then I shared with her something I’d heard from Andrew Critch, at a CFAR workshop. (Quote is from memory)

If someone says “something” to you, then that doesn’t mean that “something” is true. It also doesn’t necessarily mean that that person believes that “something” is true. Incidentally, it also doesn’t necessarily mean that they think that you don’t already agree with them that “something”. It really just means that, at the moment they said it, it made sense to them to say “something”. To you.

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Selling to friends (and telling crushes you like them)

I was chatting with a friend of mine the other day, who remarked:

I’ve got a question for you… I’m working at this company where I get a referral bonus for new hires or new customers, and when I told some of my coworkers that I was friends with the CEO of [Company], they said that I should try to get them to sign up.

…and I was like “whoa, that feels really aversive”. So I was wondering if you have any tips on selling to your friends.

Turned out this is a question I had pondered before, myself. Specifically, last October I found myself puzzling over the question:

“Why was it easy to ask friends for money when I was starting Complice, but not now?”

Fortunately, most of the conversations in which that had happened were recorded in the form of chat logs, so I was relatively easily able to investigate the question framed as such. First, I made a list of relevant factors that were different at the nascent stages of my company versus several years in:

  • in 2013 in was kind of an exclusive offer: you couldn’t just decide to sign up without me contacting you… and I was only looking for ~10 people to start. Not only that, but if I hadn’t messaged them, they probably wouldn’t have even known that it was happening… so there was a sense in which I was giving them valuable information. Whereas now, many of my friends have heard of Complice already.
  • » read the rest of this entry »

Deconstruction of “Criticism”

Earlier this week, Julia Galef posted a brief piece to facebook on unsolicited criticism. I started to reply, and then semi-accidentally wrote something blog-post length and somewhat tangential to the original discussion. Note that I didn’t start out with a specific point to make, so my post doesn’t exactly have a coherent structure or direction to it.

“Criticism” seems like a complex term, which might be worth deconstructing.

Wikipedia says “Criticism is the practice of judging the merits and faults of something.” This seems pretty uncontroversial to me, and also seems to imply that criticism is inherently ~essentialist. If A is criticizing B’s behaviour, that basically implies there’s something wrong with B (and that A has the right to judge B).

This is naturally going to put people on the defensive.

Broadly speaking, criticism is part of a larger set of things we might call “feedback”. In a really abstract sense, what “feedback” is is information flow between parts of a system. Even if we assume that all criticism is negative (which seems roughly but not strictly true of the usage of the english word “criticism”, outside of artistic contexts) it’s still not the case that all negative feedback is criticism: for instance, if your house gets too warm in the winter, a negative feedback loop from the thermostat to the furnace will cause the furnace to stop.

To take a human example, sometimes I’ve been talking excitedly and then someone has told me (with words or gestures) to be more quiet. This is clearly negative feedback: it responds to increased voice volume on my part with something intended to decrease voice volume. Often this volume feedback feels like a helpful and connective signal, but at other times it feels like criticism—like they think I’m incompetent for not already speaking more quietly. Especially if they’ve told me in the past.

What makes the difference?

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Over-empathizing with non-existent suffering

I finally managed to put words to a thing that has been subtly bugging me for awhile: why certain reactions to me being in pain bother me. This post is short!

A story in which Malcolm is in pain, I

I was moving behind a car to get in the passenger side door. I hit my shin on the car’s tow-hitch and exclaimed some sort of sharp sound of pain.

My mom, who had also been getting in the car, started going “Ohh, buddy! That hurts, oh wow, that really hurts…” etc.

…but I wasn’t actually in that much pain, and was mostly wishing her reaction would go away. The pain is already fading. The sympathy is escalating.

This has happened with other people too; this is just the most salient example. I find these encounters pretty disconnecting, because the person is trying to empathize with me but then after the initial moment they’re paying more attention to their own imagination than they actually are to my experience.

In general, pain that doesn’t indicate something is ongoingly wrong will attenuate—it will gradually decrease. This is true for most stubbings of toes, small cuts and scrapes, and so on. But some responses to pain (eg tensing up a bunch) can make things more painful.

A story in which Malcolm is in pain, II

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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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