The Power of Four (Questions and Agreements)

March 8, 2017

by Kim Childs, CPPC

I’ve been immersed in personal growth work for 20 years and, while my aim in coaching is to bring forth my clients’ own wisdom, I also love referring them to teachers who’ve helped me on my journey. Two of my favorites are Don Miguel Ruiz and Byron Katie, who offer us four simple yet powerful questions and agreements for better living.

Katie is famous for creating The Work, her signature program of inquiry that teaches us to identify and challenge any thoughts that are causing us to suffer.  In its most basic form, The Work consists of four questions and a turnaround. It can do fatal damage to the painful stories and assumptions we cling to that keep us feeling right and justified (as opposed to happy).

Here are Katie’s questions to ask when a thought we’re thinking is creating suffering (e.g. “Tom thinks I’m incompetent.”):

1. Is it true? (Do you think yes or no? If no, move to question 3.)
2. Can you absolutely know that it’s true? (Yes or no.)
3. How do you react, what happens, when you believe that thought?
4. W
ho would you be without that thought?

By asking questions 1 and 2, we may now realize that we’ve been making an assumption. Moving on to questions 3 and 4, we see how thinking this way feels lousy, causes stress and affects how we behave (especially toward Tom). If the thought still feels true, however, we’re invited to examine the consequences of dwelling on and projecting it, and the option to let it go for greater inner and outer peace.

Next, we move to the turnaround, which is a re-phrasing of the thought for a new perspective and awareness. Turnarounds here could be “I think I’m incompetent” or “I think Tom’s incompetent” or “Tom thinks he’s incompetent” To identify the right turnaround, find three specific examples that point to its truth. This may take some digging, but it can lead to some good”Aha” moments.

The Work can yield more thoughtful, less judgmental ways to operate in the world and unhook us from the habit of letting people and things disturb our peace. Ultimately, it shows us our own part in causing suffering, and the ways in which our unchecked assumptions can wreak havoc in our lives and relationships. “I discovered that when I believed my thoughts, I suffered, but that when I didn’t believe them, I didn’t suffer, and that this is true for every human being,” Katie writes. “Freedom is as simple as that. I found that suffering is optional.”

Don Miguel Ruiz, who grew up with Mexican parents practicing ancient Toltec traditions, shares that culture’s wisdom in his popular book, The Four Agreements: A Practical Guide to Personal Freedom. In it, Ruiz offers practical steps for long-term personal transformation with such agreements as:

1. Be Impeccable With Your Word
Speak with integrity. Say only what you mean. Avoid using the word to speak against yourself or to gossip about others. Use the power of your word in the direction of truth and love.

2. Don’t Take Anything Personally
Nothing others do is because of you. What others say and do is a projection of their own reality, their own dream. When you are immune to the opinions and actions of others, you won’t be the victim of needless suffering.

3. Don’t Make Assumptions
Find the courage to ask questions and to express what you really want. Communicate with others as clearly as you can to avoid misunderstandings, sadness and drama. With just this one agreement, you can completely transform your life.

4. Always Do Your Best
Your best is going to change from moment to moment; it will be different when you are healthy as opposed to sick. Under any circumstance, simply do your best, and you will avoid self-judgment, self-abuse and regret.

These agreements fall into the the “Not easy, but worth trying” category of practices for happier living. Even Ruiz acknowledges this challenge in the book.

“You need a very strong will in order to adopt the Four Agreements—but if you can begin to live your life with these agreements, the transformation in your life will be amazing,” Ruiz writes. “You will see the drama of hell disappear right before your very eyes. Instead of living in a dream of hell, you will be creating a new dream—your personal dream of heaven.”

I can’t say for sure that I or any of my clients are living in a “dream of heaven” all the time, but they report good outcomes from practicing these four questions and agreements, as do I. Why not try them at home (and everywhere) and see if you feel better, too?

Kim Childs, CPPC, is a Certified Life and Career Coach specializing in Positive Psychology, Creativity, and Midlife Transitions. Click here to learn more and schedule an initial consultation.


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