Many of our coaching clients ask us for book recommendations, especially about leadership. The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz is probably the book that we recommend most often - and it’s one of our all-time favourites. It’s powerful, profound, and gives you a framework to operate at your best.
It’s not a typical leadership book but whenever we use it in a facilitation or coaching situation we often get positive feedback from leaders and their teams.
So we thought we’d talk about what the Four Agreements are and give you some examples of how you can apply them in your teams, as a people leader, and even just in everyday life.
Listen here or continue reading below.
The Four Agreements Philosophy
So first, a little bit of background. The Philosophy behind The Four Agreements is based on the Toltes, a Mesoamerican culture and part of the Aztec civilisation from 900 to 1060 CE. So while the book itself was published over 20 years ago now, the thought behind it isn’t new.
Here are each of the four agreements, which you could also consider as rules for life or guidelines to live by:
- Be impeccable with your word
- Don't take anything personally
- Don't make assumptions
- Always do your best
At the core of The Four Agreements is this notion of not being at war with anyone outside of yourself. It helps us understand that we’re programmed to enforce our preconceived ideas and beliefs. And that can sometimes be a good thing - rigidity and structure helps us feel safe, guided, and consistent, which is important when we’re navigating through difficult things.
But by following the four agreements, we’re able to change our thought patterns, become more self-aware, and see what’s really possible.
For example, if you're in a really difficult situation, instead of putting up walls or running away, you might take a moment to ask yourself:
- What is good about this situation that I'm not seeing yet?
- What meaning can I make out of this particular event that would benefit me?
- What would I have to believe about myself for me to behave this way or to think this way?
So this approach can really allow us to start flexing the way in which we think and feel and believe in order to create a different state and way of operating.
First agreement: Be impeccable with your word
So the first agreement is one that we use quite a lot, especially with people we’ve coached over the years: be impeccable with your word. And here’s what that means:
- Speak with integrity. In other words, only say what you really mean or what you're going to do. Be truthful.
- Be upfront. If you say you’re going to do something, but something happens that prevents you from doing it, just be upfront with anyone who’s likely to be impacted.
- Don’t speak out against others. That means avoiding gossip and negative self-talk.
- Share honestly and with good intention. If you feel the need to discuss someone who isn’t present, explain why you’re sharing it and communicate it clearly so that it’s a positive, constructive experience that isn’t gossip and doesn’t diminish them in any way.
- Speak with compassion. Use your words for love and kindness so that instead of judging or finding fault with others, you look for what you can accept in them.
Second agreement: Don’t take anything personally
This agreement, don't take anything personally, is all about how you approach other people's opinions. Easier said than done, right? But it’s important to remember two things:
- Someone else’s opinion has nothing to do with you. It comes from their reality, not yours.
- Feedback often comes out wrong. You can't jump inside someone else’s head and know what they're thinking. Their feedback might sound harsh, but really, it was given with the best of intentions.
The problem with taking things personally is that things can unravel, especially if you’re a “feeler” personality type. So just try to remember that someone else’s actions and opinions aren’t about you. It's about them.
And this flows perfectly into the third agreement, which is all about not making assumptions.
Third agreement: Don’t make assumptions
Once we realise that we don't know what's going inside of other people's heads, we see how important it is to ask questions, connect, and express what we're not clear about. And when we do that, we’re able to communicate more clearly and avoid misunderstandings.
As a people leader, you should be aware of underlying assumptions about others around you. About what they're thinking or feeling, and why they're behaving in a certain way. It’s important to realise that if you want to stop yourself from making these assumptions. The first step is to ask more questions.
That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t prepare for your conversation, research their situation, and so on. But when you’re in front of that person, it’s extremely important that you are fully present. You need to try to be aware of your unconscious biases and assumptions.
Here’s how you can check your assumptions about someone:
- Start with things that are working in your relationship and what they’re doing well
- Notice what you're saying and the words you're using
- Take note of how you're feeling about this person
- Note anything you assume that you know about this person
- Consider any assumptions about their work ethic and competence
Just see what comes up for you. You might be surprised to find you have a lot of assumptions to work through. After all, it’s how our brains are wired - to make quick decisions is (or used to be) essential for survival!
So the challenge here is staying open and curious and just accepting that you may not have all the answers.
Fourth agreement: Always do your best
And the fourth agreement, always do your best, is almost like the combination of them all. Because if you always do your best, you’ll always be more conscious of how you are operating moment to moment, meeting to meeting, interaction to interaction. You’ll ask yourself powerful questions like:
- Am I communicating as best as I can with this person?
- Am I putting my best effort and energy into this role or this job?
- Could I understand this person better and get closer to their truth?
Plus, it forces you to approach your work and life differently. It’s about balance. Because you can’t bring your A-game and do your best unless you’re feeling good, you’re rested, and supported.
Which brings us to another important point. Your best is never going be the same from moment to moment or week to week. But you can always do your best with what you've got and from where you are right now. So be kind to yourself and continue to do your best.
Be impeccable with your thoughts
Picture this: you’re in a room full of people and you have to put everything you’ve said to yourself over the past week up on a whiteboard in front of everyone. Would you fill the board with positive words and encouragement? Or negative, hateful words? Would you say these words to others?
Remember the first agreement: be impeccable with your words. Well, you really have to take it one step further and be impeccable with your thoughts, too. It’s so important. Because when you speak words of self-judgement, self-abuse, and regret, you get a whole bunch of emotions that just feel crap and stop you from moving forward.
But when you do your best and you’re kind to yourself, it feels good. You have to be your best cheerleader and champion. You need to encourage yourself so you can move forward in any area of your life.
Practical ways to put the four agreements into action
“You can have many great ideas in your head, but what makes the difference is the action. Without action upon an idea, there will be no manifestation, no results, and no reward”
― Miguel Ruiz, The Four Agreements
The four agreements are simple, but powerful. All you need to do is consistently put them into practice. Here are three places to start:
1. Write them down on the front of your notebook that you take into meetings.
“Be impeccable with your word. Don't take anything personally. Don't make assumptions. Always do your best.” Write these words down on your notebook and make them your mantra for each meeting. Meeting to meeting, moment to moment, interchange to interchange.
2. Make one agreement per week.
It’s easier to make changes when you’re not overwhelmed and you can focus on one thing at a time. So, just choose one agreement each week for the next four weeks. For example, focus on being impeccable with your word for a whole week and journal about it. Or focus on not taking things personally.
3. Ask for feedback
As a people leader, ask the people who report to you, “How impeccable am I with my word?” And have the courage to truly listen and become more self-aware, because, as much as you can try to understand yourself, hearing someone else’s feedback can give you a new and valuable perspective.
From the four agreements to self awareness and change
When you put these four agreements into practice and you’re intentional about it, you’ll start to become more self-aware. And instead of just trying to do your best, you’ll have other perspectives to help you actually become better and be a more effective leader.
And you start to develop resilience when you realise that what other people say and project is about their values, their beliefs, and their background. So you can listen to their feedback with openness and awareness, and check your assumptions - even as you are aware of theirs.
And that’s a powerful position to be in because this level of awareness means you can do something about it. It’s an opportunity for change and for living the best life.
Learn more about The Four Agreements
We highly recommend you go and grab a copy of The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz, so you can read more. It's short, sharp, and fantastic… and once you start to put them into place, it can really boost your awareness and help create positive change in your life and work.