Self-Knowledge and the Four Agreements

How well do you know yourself?

In last month’s blog on self-awareness, we discussed using assessments to gauge your behavioral hardwiring—those aspects of our personalities and character that were encoded in us before birth or during our early, formative years. Having that information is the first step to knowing more about yourself. The next step is to get clear about your belief system.

In The Four Agreements, Don Miguel Ruiz makes the original argument that we’re all walking around with a number of things we believe—or to be more specific, agreements we’ve made with ourselves about how we will and will not behave. Few of us ever stop to challenge those agreements or to ask whether they’re truly serving us. When we do, it’s like waking up from a dream. Everything is suddenly clearer.

Ruiz suggests four agreements that we can make to better ourselves—and the world around us. The first is to “make an agreement that unkindness is toxic in the world.” In other words, you’re no longer going to speak in negative terminology about anyone, no matter what they’re doing to you or how justifiable your anger feels. You understand that most negative emotions are rooted in fear, and not wanting to be held captive by fear, you simply say to yourself, “I’m not going to let any poison come out of my mouth. I’m not going to introduce poison into the world.”

The second agreement is that you won’t make assumptions anymore. When we make assumptions about other people’s motives, we’re really just projecting our feelings and needs onto them. Often, we assume their behavior is about us, when it’s really just about something going on with them.

For example, I recently worked with a certain executive team. One of the executives has a particular element of his behavioral hardwiring that makes him tend to see those who disagree with him as attacking his personal viewpoint. Instead of seeing someone’s difference of opinion as just that, he immediately assumes the other person is trying to stick it to him. In other words, he assumes the other person’s motive isn’t about the business but rather a personal agenda to stop him.

I’m still coaching this executive, and because of the work we’re doing, he’s aware of this aspect of his behavioral hardwiring. The beauty is that by agreeing to not make assumptions, he can begin to change his natural response.

This leads us to the third agreement: Take nothing personally. When we assume other people’s motives are to attack us, and we take what they say or do personally, our emotions become inflamed, and that’s where things can get ugly.

Finally, the fourth agreement is to continue to keep trying the first three. These agreements can be difficult to keep with ourselves, especially if they go against our natural hardwiring, but if we can commit to not letting poison come out of our mouths, not making assumptions, and not taking things personally, we can become more self-aware and more productive members of society.

As you begin to apply these agreements to your life, you must be patient with yourself. Sometimes you will slip back into your old habits and break your agreements—and that’s OK. Just get back up, recommit, and keep trying.