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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Non-Naive Trust Dance—why the name?

“If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you, but make allowance for their doubting too” —Rudyard Kipling

I’m intending to write a whole sequence of posts that express various elements of the Non-Naive Trust Dance framework I discovered last year, and thought that a good piece to write early on would be an introduction that talks about why it has the name it does, answering in brief these three questions:

  • What do I mean by “trust”?
  • What do I mean by “non-naive trust”?
  • Why “trust-dancing”?

I suppose it’s worth noting that I don’t remember choosing a name for this thing when I discovered it last year—this was just sort of the obvious thing to call it as I was seeing it from my perspective at the time.

a graphic of two people dancing, with those questions overlaid
drawing by Silvia Bastos at my commission

What do I mean by “trust”?

My context for thinking about trust comes from my longtime colleague Jean Robertson, who points out that all trust is fundamentally trust in one’s own experience, or “self-trust” for short. Trust also needs to be qualified as trust in something in particular. There’s no general “I trust you” (or not). As someone put it:

“I trust Alice to return a $10 loan but not a $10,000 loan, Bob to return a $10,000 loan but not to babysit an infant, Carol to babysit but not with my house key, Dave with my house key but not my intimate secrets, and Ellen with my intimate secrets but not to return a $10 loan. I trust Frank if a friend vouches for him, a taxi driver as long as he’s displaying his license, and Gail as long as she hasn’t been drinking.”

From Bruce Schneier, Liars and Outliers — via Kaj Sotala, “Don’t trust people, trust their components

Elaborating on this, what the person is saying here is “based on trusting my experience of these various folks, I have predictions of what they would do, that I’m prepared to base my decisions on.” If Alice wanted to borrow $10,000, or Bob offered to babysit, this person would then be faced with a situation where their friend would be making a bid to be trusted in a way that the person actually doesn’t trust them.

That’s a tough situation to be in, particularly if it doesn’t feel easy to talk about.

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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?!?

» read the rest of this entry »

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?

» read the rest of this entry »

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 »

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

» read the rest of this entry »

The Process Lens

A lot of things that we usually model as events or states can be thought of as processes. Depending on the context, this process lens can

  • boggle the mind
  • improve goal-orientation
  • bring clarity to communicating and relating

I’m going to go through them in that order because it’s also perhaps in increasing levels of complexity.

Some brief bogglement

When was the last time you looked at the stars at night?

I was hanging out with my friend a few weeks ago, staring at the stars while we talked about the nature of the universe.

It occurred to me that in some ways it’s less accurate to say that the stars “are bright”, and more accurate to say that they’re continually emitting light. I mean, obviously, but really stop and think about it: say you’re looking at the “North Star” (Polaris). It’s about 400 light years away, which means that the fact that you’re seeing light from that direction right now is because of a bunch of nuclear reactions in the star, like 400 years ago. A few seconds later, you’re seeing new light, made from some more nuclear reactions. And on and on.

And that light is being continually sent out in all directions. There’s a giant sphere radiating out from Polaris of light-from-400-years-ago. There’s another sphere of light-from-500-years-ago, which is a thousand light-years across (Earth is inside this sphere) and still expanding. The sphere of light-from-300-years-ago is also gigantic, but won’t reach Earth until the 22nd century. (If you’re reading this in the 22nd century or later, then OMG HI. Please forgive this claim which is now false.)

So the light you’re seeing isn’t just the state of things. It’s a process that is continuously happening.

» read the rest of this entry »

Boggling at being a computational creature made of stuff

We interrupt your regularly scheduled metaprogramming to bring you a stream-of-consciousness musing on the nature of being, and related topics. This is more me playing with ideas than trying to make any case in particular.

Being made of stuff

Sometimes I forget that I exist in the physical realm. That I’m made of stuff. Less so, perhaps, than many of my mathier friends, but still fairly often.

In one sense, this is true: what “I” am is an identity, a sense of self, a pattern. The pattern happens to currently be expressed in a very physical sense: my computations may be virtual in a sense, but they’re tightly coupled to input from the physical world, including parts of the physical world that are also considered to be “me”. The parts of my body.

But of course they’re “me” for convenience, because they’re an extension of my cognition. Immediately after my finger is cut off, it’s very immediately no longer “me”. I wonder if people who are paraplegic don’t feel like their legs are “them”. Does someone with phantom limb syndrome include their phantom limb in their notion of “me”, even if it doesn’t exist in the normal sense?

Relatedly, we often feel like the rogue agents in our brains aren’t us. Hell, sometimes I’ve even said/heard “my brain just generated a thought, which was…” So I guess a large fraction of my cognition also isn’t exactly “me”. Dis-identification from my thoughts, for better or for worse.


Seriously though, we’re made out of stuff. » 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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