- What is my truth?
- What is my part?
- What is my learning? OR What am I learning?
- 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:
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
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, http://www.joseph-dicenso.com or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.”