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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Fractal Home

I’ve just moved into a new home (just north of Victoria, BC), and it seemed like a good time to publish a piece of writing I drafted in January about the nature of Home.

In the terms of my previous blog post, it could be summarized as something like “Home is where you have non-naive meta-trust”.

Naturally, people really really want this sense of Home, although they may think it’s impossible, theoretically or just pragmatically. In general, most people don’t have environments where they have deep meta-trust, and don’t have a workable roadmap towards creating such environments. But it’s possible, given enough shared attention and an adequate toolkit, to co-create this sense of Home.

And, moreover, the process of a group consciously co-creating Home can itself produce the feeling of relief that being Home produces, [[in the meantime]], if everyone feels a sense that the group is doing its best to take into consideration the careabouts of each group member—before it has actually solved all the problems. This is a collective version of what Mark Lippmann calls the “Handledness is Already Success” principle.

When I use the word “need” or “want” or “careabout” or “desire” in this piece of writing, I’m pointing at, fundamentally, a cybernetic control system set point. What makes something a need, vs a want, might be essentially, as my friend Catherio put it: “if this goes unmet, I will make substantial changes to my life”. These careabouts include things on every level from psychological safety & self-actualization & meaning, to food & water & shelter… and probably stuff Maslow forget to mention!

I am Home to the extent that (and in the ways that)

  1. I can relax knowing that the systems around me aren’t going to subvert my needs & wants (whether malevolently or carelessly) and will in general support them.
  2. I feel, and am, empowered to make changes to the situation in order to care for my needs.

This applies to any context, not just to a house. In particular, it can also apply to a group of people or a relationship. So I’m not talking about “home” as contrasted with “work” and “third places” here.

This applies to all sorts of meta dimensions but it’s also very concrete:

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Letter to my younger self, who has just been sent to his room

On behalf of the universe: there’s been a mistake. You weren’t meant to be sent here, to your room.

I’m highlighting the mistaken nature of this situation because what I want to tell you is: you’re free. But I don’t want to be your rescuer, you see. In order for you to really be free of this room, in your mind not just your body, you’ll need to be free of the meaning of it, which means coming to understand why you were never meant to be sent here in the first place.

In saying you’re free, I’m not saying, “you’re good—it doesn’t matter what you did that resulted in you being sent to your room.” There’s probably some sort of conversation that needs to happen, because whatever you did affected other people in ways that you need to understand, and I think you’d want to do something different if you could understand both those impacts and also understand what prompted you to do what you did in the first place. Also, other people need to understand what impacts they had on you! All of that needs to be talked about, in order for everyone to have a good time now and in the future.

And… in saying “there’s still a further conversation that needs to happen,” I’m not saying, “you’re bad—you can’t relax or feel good until we have that further conversation.” You don’t need to stress about it. You didn’t do anything wrong. We want to have this conversation in a way that feels good for you, and for everyone.

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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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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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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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Laughter and Dominance: 5-year reflection on againstness training

It’s now been five years since I first attended a CFAR workshop. I wrote a 3-year retrospective 2 years ago. Today I want to reflect on one specific aspect of the workshop: the Againstness Training.

In addition to the 5 year mark, this is also timely because I just heard from the instructor, Val, that after lots of evolution in how it was taught, this class has finally been fully replaced, by one called Presence.

The Againstness Training was an activity designed to practice the skill of de-escalating your internal stress systems, in the face of something scary you’re attempting to do.

I had a friend record a video of my training exercise, which has proven to be a very fruitful decision, as I’ve been able to reflect on that video as part of getting more context for where I am now. Here’s the video. If you haven’t seen it, it’s worth watching! If you have, I recommend you nonetheless watch the first 2 minutes or so as context for what I’m going to say, below:

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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 »

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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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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