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Weaving Shared Reality

The Foundation of our Social World
Michael Porcelli
February 11, 2024

A simple, yet surprisingly profound experience two or more people can share in relationship with each other is shared reality. Weaving shared reality is the process of communicating so we are getting on the same page with another person, creating mutual understanding.

There is your reality, what you experience as true. This includes your perceptions, your thoughts, your feelings, your perspectives, your beliefs, your hunches, and so on. And there’s also their reality, what they experience as true — including their perspectives, beliefs, perceptions, hunches, and so forth.

Shared reality is where we discover an overlap between the two. Weaving shared reality is an exchange of communication where you both come to understand that there are some things that are true for you and true for them, and you both know that’s the case.

This probably sounds like some basic common sense. I would agree. And it’s so much more. Consider this an invitation to explore the exquisite significance shared reality plays in our lives. Through this, I hope you find practical applications to your relationships and insights into how you relate to the world.

Conversations that Create Shared Reality

There are two basic conversational moves required to weave shared reality. One is sharing your experience where you reveal some of your perspectives, your feelings, your intentions, and your beliefs. The other is active listening which includes confirming your understanding of their perspectives, feelings, intentions, and beliefs. Both partners in an exchange must to some degree do both of these moves in order to weave shared reality.

Two people, both are sharing and listening actively, weaving shared reality
Both partners in an exchange must to some degree do both of these moves in order to weave shared reality.

To get someone’s experience, you need to listen in order to understand them from their own point of view. In addition, you need to check with them to confirm if you understood them accurately. When checking, sometimes you’ll receive confirmation, and at other times, clarification or correction. In either case, this helps increase the shared reality between you. Without confirmation, you may be listening, but you’re not actually creating shared reality.

When sharing about your experience, it takes more than just describing things aloud to a passive audience. It requires there be some response from your listener indicating whether they heard and understood you accurately, or if they did not. Then it’s necessary to offer any clarifications needed to help them understand you better. These confirmations and clarifications are required to create a shared reality.

Without confirmation, you may be listening, but you’re not actually creating shared reality.
Agreement & Persuasion

It’s important to clearly distinguish between agreement and shared reality. It’s entirely possible to have shared reality even when we disagree. When we “agree to disagree,” or even, “agree that we disagree,” we have actually discovered some amount of shared reality. This would include what in particular we are disagreeing about, and perhaps some specifics of how we are disagreeing about it.

It’s easy to forget this distinction and slip into thinking we’re just “trying to understand” or “be understood” when we are actually attempting to persuade someone to agree. There’s nothing wrong with attempting to influence, and some mutual understanding is often a prerequisite to influencing. But it’s best not to confuse an intent to influence with an intent to simply create shared reality.

This gets a little tricky when the disagreement is relational, that is, when two people disagree about something that happened between them. These disagreements can lead to conflict. In these situations, we’ll often feel an urge to persuade each other we have a better interpretation, or that we’re right. By prioritizing shared reality over persuasion, oftentimes this urge will decrease or even disappear. Instead, both parties update their interpretations to a more convergent perspective by integrating details from each other’s perspectives. In this sense, weaving shared reality can lead to an agreed-upon interpretation, but in a paradoxical fashion by initially deprioritizing the seeking of agreement.

Two people weaving shared reality about their relationship
When we “agree to disagree,” or even, “agree that we disagree,” we have actually discovered some amount of shared reality.
Practical Utility

Weaving shared reality is eminently practical. Communicating in ways that get us on the same page is the basis for clarifying expectations, agreements, and coordinating our actions.

Shared reality is similar to a concept called “common knowledge” used in both the mathematical field of game theory and psychology. Our brains seem to store some “metadata” along with our knowledge of things. This metadata tracks who knows which things. Common knowledge is when two or more people know something, and the metadata indicates they know that the others knows, know the others one know that they know, ad infinitem. There are some indications that people will behave cooperatively when they have more common knowledge, even when they haven’t negotiated any explicit agreements to do so.

People will behave in a naturally more cooperative way when they have more common knowledge.
Objective Reality

Weaving shared reality often brings us closer to understanding objective reality. However, this may not always be the case. Our focus when weaving shared reality is to bring both parties closer to a mutual understanding. This is not necessarily a guarantee of a more accurate picture of objective reality.

Humans are known to create shared delusions sometimes, often to our detriment. I believe this sobering note speaks to the power of shared reality when unchecked. Caution is warranted lest we become trapped in an echo-chamber or filter-bubble filled with “fake news” and other baloney. Intellectual humility, healthy skepticism, and an understanding of empirical approaches, logical fallacies, and cognitive biases can help correct errors of this kind.

A ven diagram with 3 circles: your reality, their reality, objective reality. Shared reality is in the overlap.

Even so, understanding objective reality entails weaving shared reality. Rational discourse and empirical inquiry are intrinsically social. These investigations require things like defining terms, making logical arguments, describing hypotheses, carrying out experiments, and communicating results. Tucked within these activities are communications that foster mutual understanding. Recommended practices for understanding objective reality often include communication protocols that promote shared reality.

Rational discourse and empirical inquiry are intrinsically social.
Social Reality

Social reality isn’t exactly objective in the same way as physical things, like rocks or water. But it’s not really delusional either. In society, there are all kinds of socially constructed things we treat as “real,” like agreements, cultures, contracts, laws, justice systems, money, economies, norms, ethics, etc. These things form our social reality which serves as the basis of civilization.

Social reality is built from shared reality

Social reality, rather than being built directly from physical matter and energy, is actually built out of shared reality (that is, it’s intersubjective, rather than objective). From the humble beginnings of two or more people establishing some small piece of mutual understanding, conversations throughout history have built further layers of shared reality. Our participation in society is mediated through shared reality. As we develop from children to adults, these kinds of conversations weave us into the social fabric, so to speak.

Experiencing Shared Reality

The heart of weaving shared reality is learning to slow down and zoom in on the most elementary components of communication. We do this through conversation. These conversations give rise to our communities of shared meaning, step-by-step, one exchange at a time. We build castles of shared reality brick-by-brick.

As you practice zooming in like this, you will develop your capacity to tune into the direction of more shared reality, like a “sixth sense” or a “north star.” With this intuition, you’ll naturally be able to weave more of it in any circumstance you wish.

If you continue following this intuition, you may experience Aletheia, a felt experience that emerges in concert with shared reality at times. You’re probably already familiar with it, even if not by this name. Sometimes it’s like a sensation of disclosure, the revelation of something hidden, the recollection of something forgotten, the discovery of something new, or the spark of creation.

Sometimes Aletheia happens as we’re inquiring into and opening up to one another to such an extent that we experience something profound merely through the exploration. At other times, something novel or surprising to everyone may emerge through an exchange, like a freshly minted piece of shared reality! Often it occurs as a sensation that one is having the same in-the-moment experience as another person.

Aletheia feels both revelatory and genuine regardless of how it emerges. Signs of it indicate something “rings true” in a group of two or more — nods, sighs, gasps, eyes widened, bodies leaned-in, or a wave of voices chiming in. You might think, or even say, “aha!” Or perhaps you’ll well-up with emotion. The more we practice weaving shared reality with others, the more we’ll get a sense of what it’s like to be hot on the trail of Aletheia. As we do, we can learn how to invite it, gently coaxing it forth.

Aletheia feels both revelatory and genuine regardless of how it emerges.

There’s an intimate relationship between shared reality and a feeling of connection with another person. Although they are certainly not the same, they frequently build and reinforce each other. Consider how it might be difficult to cultivate a deeper connection with someone without some mutual understanding about the nature of the connection as it is developing. As feelings of connection get stronger between two people, the more likely it becomes they’ll begin to speak about it. These conversations may be punctuated by expressions like, "I like how our relationship is developing," "I like getting to know you better," or "I'm glad we're on the same page."

Similarly, as you cultivate a richer and more detailed mutual understanding of each other and the relationship between you, feelings of connection and warmth tend to naturally emerge.

Authentic Relationships

When our relationships are authentic, they flourish. For starters, authentic relationships require authenticity — being true to ourselves as individuals. Yet this is not sufficient for authentic relationships. These require something more.

For a relationship to be authentic, it must be mutual. This implies we are weaving shared reality about our relationship. If two people have very different ideas about the nature and history of their relationship, these differences will compound over time, straining the relationship. In a healthy relationship, when we discover we are not on the same page, we know how to get back onto it. Together, we continue to foster a common understanding of what our relationship has been and continues to become. And failing to maintain some shared understanding about the nature of the relationship can harm the relationship. 

Our shared reality about our relationship is like “the story of us.”

For a relationship to be authentic, it must be mutual.
Outer Limits

Whatever the extent of shared reality we create together, there are limitless degrees of further shared reality possible. We can never know with absolute certainty that the reality we believe we are experiencing and the reality experienced by another are the same. Nor can we know beyond a shadow of a doubt that the shared reality we have confirmed with each other matches in every detail.

There are always further nooks and crannies of shared reality to discover together. Each moment of shared reality has the potential to change each of us and our relationships in ways both small and big, like some kind of “observer effect .” This, in itself, creates a fresh potential for even more shared reality. As in the paradoxes of Zeno, or in the image of Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam, there will always be some gap, enticing us to progressively bridge it, yet remaining perpetually out of reach in its totality.

Our ability to further explore, create and discover shared reality together is a fundamental and ever-present human possibility and a marvel of existence.

A close up illustrated version of God & Adam's fingertips from Michelangelo's Creation of Adam
These fingers never touch

Postscript: I first encountered the term “shared reality” in 2009 as a facilitator of Circling and Authentic Relating where we used it as a term-of-art in our facilitation approach. This is also the sense in with MetaRelating uses the term “shared reality.”

It was 2019 when I encountered the research literature on “shared reality theory” some of which I cited here. Current Opinion in Psychology dedicated an entire volume to it called Shared Reality (Volume 23, October 2018). The editor of that volume, E. Tory Higgins, published his book Shared Reality: What Makes Us Strong and Tears Us Apart in July of 2019.

Shared Reality book cover

In this literature, shared reality is sometimes used like an umbrella term that includes a variety of social processes, like “shared attention” and “social tuning.” Some of these correlate with my descriptions here, for example, “I-sharing” is something like Aletheia.

In their article, “Shared Reality: Experiencing Commonality with others’ Inner States about the World” in Perspectives on Psychological Science (Vol. 4 №5, 2009), Echterhoff, Higgins, & Levine elaborate on their specific their usage, stating: “individuals involved do perceive their inner states as being in agreement.” Their usage, which entails agreement, seems to predominate the field, which is different from my usage of the term. They differentiate this from “perspective-taking,” which is more like my usage of the term.

There is a way my usage is convergent with theirs. For example, two people may disagree about something. However, if they weave shared reality about the nature of their disagreement, then they are indeed seeking agreement about this second-order knowledge, that is, the ways in which they disagree about something else.