Four Questions

  1. What is my truth?
  2. What is my part?
  3. What is my learning? OR What am I learning?
  4. What is my task?

In preparing for a recent piece of work with a small business going through a major transition and confronting deep interpersonal conflicts, these four questions came to me as potentially useful.  Since then, I have spent some time honing them and my thinking about them as a tool.

I like the simplicity of the questions and the ground they cover.  I think they can be applied to group, team, family and/or relationship settings as well as to individual reflection and personal mastery.

Being a model-making type, I couldn’t just leave the questions as a list, but felt compelled to see if they were an expression of something model-like.  I actually think they’re quite serviceable and adequate as “just” a list of questions, and some readers may stop here and start using them out in the world without further ado.

But, actually, before you do so, I think you may find you’ll get even more out of them if I at least define my terms—what I mean by “truth,” “part,” “learning,” and “task.”  While they may seem to speak for themselves, some of them could be construed in ways I don’t mean.


By Truth I mean what authors Kathlyn and Gay Hendricks call “the unarguable truth” or those things I can say that are simply not subject to dispute.  Basically, that means what’s happening now, in my body—breath, belly, bones and emotions.  I agree with the Hendrickses that the body tells the truth, so listening to and knowing how to interpret the body is more than half the work to be done here.

So, the first step is coming clean with myself, which requires self-awareness, a capacity for reflection and self-acceptance—making room for whatever shows up inside me.

Thus, answering the question, “What is my truth?” I reveal myself rather than take your inventory.  I’m not judging or evaluating, shaming or blaming others—or myself, for that matter!  I’m speaking what’s alive in me simply and briefly, without game-playing or manipulation, pity or pride, pandering or protecting.

              EXAMPLE: “My body is fidgety and I’m not fully engaged.”


My Part is how I am (or have been) co-creating, colluding with, or contributing to the current reality I just spoke about in my Truth statement.  This requires a willingness to take responsibility.  Somewhere between codependence/rescuer consciousness (everything’s my fault/happens on my watch) and victim consciousness (everything happens to me) is a state of vibrant self-responsibility wherein I take 100% responsibility only for my behaviors—perhaps my beliefs, feelings, attitudes and values, as well, but with this model I suggest that behavior alone—what I do or say—be the focus of this second question, “What is my part?”.  (Question three provides an opportunity to address the less tangible beliefs, values, attitudes and feelings.)

Owning my part is not about shame or blame.  Its purpose is not to figure out how I’ve been bad, but to notice where I have power and choice and what I’ve done (or not done) with those resources.

              EXAMPLE: “I have not asked for what would keep me fully engaged.”


The term Learning refers to meaning, lessons, insights or guidance gained from reflecting on the first two questions.  This requires humility and curiosity.  For many of us, learning is laden with lots of baggage—from one’s culture or personal history.  It can be a form of punishment (“That oughta teach you a lesson!”) or a shaming act (“You should know better.”).  To learn anything, we must first admit our not-knowing, which can bring its own risks.

The learning I invite and encourage in this model is free of shoulds and shame, self-attack or punishment, and full of honesty, humility, curiosity and trust in one’s own intuition.

I use two forms of the question because one, “What is my learning?”, points toward a single and specific lesson or insight; whereas asking “What am I learning?” allows that I may be engaged in an ongoing process of inquiry, meaning-making and mastery.  Either one or both may be appropriate, given your context.

              EXAMPLE: “I have been blaming others for my boredom rather than voicing requests for what would engage me.”

              EXAMPLE: “I hesitate (or I am learning how) to ask for what I want because I’m not sure how to do so without shame or blame.”


Task is about action, application, contribution or gift.  It asks, “How will I apply what I’m learning–in concrete and specific action/behavior?”  And “What is my task (or part) in creating my/our desired future reality?”

What’s required at this stage is agency—to be willing and able to take action on my own behalf and for the benefit of others, to exert my power or influence.  My task, in this context, is the thing I can do that I also choose to do.  My task is not determined by “shoulds” or shame.  It is not a penance or a punishment; it is more a sacrament and an experiment; something I fully offer without attachment—but with attention—to outcome.

              EXAMPLE: “The next 3 meetings I will request, and offer to lead, physical movement at the start and the middle of our meeting.”

No Shame, No Blame

You may have noticed how, with each of the four questions, I have emphasized the importance of stepping out of any habits of shaming or blaming (self or others).  I believe we live in a world, especially in the West—and in the US, in particular, where blame, shame and punishment are reflexive; they are culturally reinforced habits that show up in everything from our legal and penal(!) systems to our education system.  From within this cultural trance, we view differences and unmet expectations as the result of someone being “right/good” and another being “wrong/bad”.  This creates separation, polarization and fear, and dampens curiosity, empathy, learning, cooperation and generosity.

For these four questions to yield the learning and movement that I believe is their potential, they must be asked from a different cultural context or belief system stance than what I see as the dominant (and, therefore, often invisible) one I’ve named above.

So, as you try on and try out these four questions, I urge you to keep an eye out for where you fall into the habit of shame and blame.  When this happens you might try asking yourself, “If there were no ‘bad’ ones only unsuccessful attempts to meet our deepest needs, then what?”

Courage and Selfhood

All four questions require a certain courage and self-esteem or self-possession.  We cannot even ask the first question in some situations without the courage to find and face unpleasant or painful feelings—to say nothing about the guts it takes to reveal ourselves to others.  To own up, we need to face our own imperfections; to learn we need to admit that we don’t know.  To offer something of ourselves requires the courage to risk “failure” or rejection.  (Note: I love the anonymous quote, “The only true failure is not to learn from what happens.”)

The more at home with ourselves we are—the stronger our selfhood, the more access we have to these kinds of courage.  I believe these questions also grow courage and selfhood—perhaps because they demand them from us, but also because they offer them as rewards.  The more I exercise my self-awareness, responsibility, curiosity, humility, agency and detachment, the more I affirm my belonging with myself, my at-homeness and my ability to act on my behalf while benefiting the whole.

The Four Questions as a Map or Model

Being a model-maker and tinkerer by type, I couldn’t help but see these questions as holding down the four corners of a map, so to speak.  Or, to be more precise, as referencing two existing maps as if the one were laid on top of the other.  These two maps are Shadow Work® and the Experiential Learning Cycle.  Shadow Work®, as developed by Cliff Barry and others, is a “way to bring your true self out of shadow and into the light… [and] …of transforming parts of your character…with compassion and understanding.”  The Experiential Learning Cycle was developed by David Kolb, Professor of Organizational Behavior at Case Western Reserve University, who is credited with launching the learning styles movement in the early 1970s.

Shadow Work® Archetypes

As I played around with the questions and this model, I noticed the resonance of the four archetypes that anchor the map and the methodology of Shadow Work®, in which I was trained and certified in 2001.  These are: Lover, Warrior, Magician and Sovereign.  As I see it, the healthy and balanced expression of each of these archetypes is represented in the four questions.

A Learning and Growth Cycle

I also see the Four Questions as an expression of Kolb’s Experiential Learning Cycle

  • Out of our Experience, Self-Awareness leads to knowing our Truth;
  • Responsibility leads to asking what is my Part;
  • Curiosity/Humility leads to seeking Learning;
  • And Agency & Detachment lead to seeking and performing my Task, which creates new/more Experience.

These are represented in the figure below:

Summary Notes

The following notes attempt to capture the essence of the article and the model.

1. Truth-telling (Lover archetype)

  • Go beneath you- and it-statements, tell yourself the truth about you in “I-statements;” tell the “unarguable” truth
  • Listen to your breath, body, heart, gut and let them speak to you
  • Requires self-awareness; requires courage because…
    • We’re taught not to do this
    • We’re afraid we’ll feel pain
    • We believe we are making ourselves more vulnerable (most of the time we actually make ourselves more admired)

2. Ownership [my Part] (Warrior archetype)

  • Take full responsibility only for your behaviors without blame, shame, (‘toxic’) guilt or drama
  • (Re)claim your power to create what you want—and to stop creating what you haven’t wanted!
  • Requires (and yields) self-esteem to own up, undefended

3. Learning (Magician archetype)

  • Beware punishment mentality; no shame, no blame
  • This is about insight, not harsh lessons; inner guidance, not self-attack
  • Requires humility and curiosity (beginner’s mind, an open hand)

4. Practice [my Task] (Sovereign archetype)

  • Do it with lightness and as an experiment—this is NOT penance!
  • This is a gift, an offer of yourself to the world, an act of agency
  • This may require courage: new behaviors, especially those performed publicly, often do

Have Fun!

This is new thinking on my part—or a new synthesis or ideas.  I share it in the spirit of welcoming you all to join me in playing with these questions and the model or maps they may evoke or reflect.  I’d love to hear from you with your own insights, applications, suggestions or questions.

In a future article I will explore how to make Truth statements in a way that fosters listening, understanding and truth-telling from others.  I will also expand the model to look at the dimensions of group or culture and explore how the questions can be answered in the “we”—leading to ownership, learning and agency at the group or organizational level.

Permission for Use and Distribution

Feel free to share this article with others, provided you include the following statement and link to my web site: “Written by Joseph DiCenso, 2009.  All rights reserved.  For over 20 years Joseph DiCenso has been helping individuals and groups bring more of themselves to life and meet their deep desires. He does so currently as a counselor-coach, workshop facilitator and leadership consultant living in the hills of western Massachusetts.  Contact him via his website, or by email at”

Getting Your Bearings Post Lay-Off

27 years ago my father was the general manager of a regional wholesale musical instrument company he’d worked for, for 20 years. In his early 40s, with his two oldest in college, he was “let go.” The company offered him a position in New York. Settled outside of Boston, my father refused to uproot and was turned loose.

In the midst of the current economic recession, many of you may find yourselves staring into the same uncertain future my father did. My aim in this article is to give you some survival skills for managing such a major transition. Rather than address the tactical skills (such as re-training, resume writing, etc.), I will focus on deep, strategic skills, using three simple questions:

• What do I want?
• What do I have
• What do I need?
Job loss can bring panic, insecurity, identity crisis, loss of direction, and can damage self esteem. These simple questions offer bearings and ballast; they can help you chart a course through what, for some, is a murky—if not a harrowing—passage.


What do I want?
Harrowing would describe my father’s experience. Work had been his identity. When that was stripped away, he went into shock, anger, self-loathing, and depression. The loss of his job, and his false self, left him exposed, and disoriented. Eventually, with a lot of help and hard work, he began to uncover the self he’d buried in his years of working three jobs to support a family of five.

In his early teens my father began teaching drum lessons in his parents’ basement (and he’s been teaching ever since). He loved to teach but had never considered it a viable career option. Groping in the dark of his post-lay off passage, he stumbled onto that calling and felt its vibrancy in a new way. What he wanted more than anything was to teach. And he wanted to do it in his own retail drum shop, where he could offer private lessons, sales, and repairs.

“What do I want?” is a question that will take you as deep as you care to go and challenge you to be as honest as you’re ready to get. In return, it offers peace: The quiet mind and pile-driven resolve of knowing what you are called to do. The deeper and more honest your answers, the more rooted and resilient you will likely feel.

Here are some tributaries of this question:

  • What do I love?
  • What is calling me?
  • What fulfills and enlivens me?
  • What life/lifestyle have I been envisioning for myself?
  • What kind of a world do I want to foster and live in?

Your answers to these questions will become your guiding star. They will provide direction, courage and motivation—at a time when you may be lacking in all three.

One could argue that, a generation later, we don’t lose ourselves in our jobs the way my dad did. We don’t expect or grant the same loyalty or longevity we once did when it comes to employment. To which I respond, these questions can serve folks anywhere along the spectrum of the impact of job loss—from massive blow to blessed relief.


What do I have?
This is a question about resources—inner and outer, hard and soft (as in skills or –ware). Once you’re clear about where you want to go, it’s time to provision yourself for the journey. What do you already possess that could be assets, resources?

Take stock of your skills, education, personality traits, relationships, and experience; then ask, of these, what will serve your endeavor. For my dad, it was his teaching—both his love of it and the devoted following he’d earned over 25 years. He also had his experience as a wholesale provider to retail storeowners. I imagine him rubbing those two sticks together and creating the fire that warmed and fortified him as he prepared to take perhaps the boldest plunge of his life.

Especially in the wake of a lay-off, you may want to ask a trusted friend or colleague to help you answer this question. Even in our best moments we can be hard-pressed to list our personal assets and get a true accounting. Who do you know who can help you name the resources inside and around you that could help you get where you want to go?


What do I need?
Once you’ve taken stock of what you have, this question asks what’s missing. To get what you want, what else do you need in the way of resources or support? Include things like information, training or education, money, encouragement, mentoring, practice, etc.

For my dad, it was a storefront and a loan. He tapped an old friend for a newly vacated retail rental and his brother, a tradesman, for the remodeling. His neighbor, a practicing accountant, helped him with the loan application process.

Asking this third question may help you to identify some other things you already have—especially people you know who can help you get what you need.


Alive, Focused & Grounded
Taken together, these three questions quiet and focus the mind, ground us in reality, and remind us of what enlivens us. Each question may require, or benefit from, outside help from friends, family, clergy or a professional helper—a coach, career counselor or therapist. The truer your answers, the deeper your roots and greater your resilience when weathering the winds of change.

My father sold his business in 2007 and still teaches 30-some students a week. He’s glad to be free from the stresses of running a retail operation, especially in these tough economic times. Speaking to him in preparation for this piece, I learned that the last 25 years were the happiest, by far, of his career and that he looks back at that lay-off as a blessing in disguise.


Permission for Use and Distribution

Feel free to share this article with others, provided you include the following statement and link to my web site: “Written by Joseph DiCenso, 2009.  All rights reserved.  For over 20 years Joseph DiCenso has been helping individuals and groups bring more of themselves to life and meet their deep desires. He does so currently as a counselor-coach, workshop facilitator and leadership consultant living in the hills of western Massachusetts.  Contact him via his website, or by email at”