What is the Enneagram?January 16, 2008 | 10 Comments
Whenever I find myself in a conversation about interpersonal difficulties (“My boss is a screamer,” “I can’t get my boyfriend to ever be on time,” “My sister cannot commit to anything”) I always ask, “have you ever heard of the enneagram?” I get one of four responses:
1. No. Not interested in that kind of hoodoo.
2. Isn’t that some kind of personality test?
3. Yes, I’m a six.
4. I haven’t. Please tell me all about it.
My favorite, of course, is the last answer. Here is what I say.
The enneagram is a system of personality typing, but to say so is like saying John Coltrane was a sax player. It just goes way beyond that. Among other things, it is a pitch-perfect illustration of your own and others’ blind spots, of what we do over and over to cause our own problems, and of how we hurt others simply because we interpret their actions according to our own type.
The enneagram is the best system I have ever encountered to explain the differences between people in a way that increases self-knowledge, understanding, and patience. Too, it allows you to let yourself off the hook by returning to you your flaws in the form of wisdom. It is an exceptional compassion tool. It enables you to track the arc of attention in self and other–and when you can see where someone’s attention is going (rather than where you think it will or should go), you can meet them there.
In addition to nine attentional styles, the enneagram posits nine speaking styles, nine idealizations, nine avoidances, and so on. (For more on these, see the link at the end of this post.)
Here is a true story about putting the enneagram to use at work:
Once I was working on a project with someone. It was fairly complicated and I often ran into problems putting our ideas into play. But whenever I would say to him, “I’ve run into a bit of a problem on thus and such and I’d love to discuss it with you,” he’d hem and haw and make excuses for why he had no time for such discussions. Then I’d beat myself up for not being able to accomplish things that he obviously thought should be straightforward. Stewing further, I’d start to curse him for insensitivity and arrogance. I began to avoid him and he began avoiding me.
Then I realized his enneagram type. He was a 7. Sevens avoid pain and problems. Their focus is almost exclusively on possibilities and options. They view problems as dead weights that slow progress. They are visionaries. For my type (4), we view problems as a sign that something meaningful is happening. Sevens are repulsed by problems while fours are magnetized by them, so of course we could not find a meeting place. A seven’s gaze is continually pulled toward the horizon, toward what could be. A four’s gaze is pulled within. Naturally, they are looking in two different directions even though they imagine they are not.
So the next time I had a problem and stopped him in the hall, I said “I have an idea and would love your feedback.” He made time for conversation on the spot. Then I told him my problem, but phrased as an idea. This simple switch took out all the BS of he likes me, he hates me, I hate him, I suck, etc, etc–and we could instead simply focus on the task.
This is the brilliance of the enneagram.
Click here to read the rest of my completely unauthorized thoughts on the subject.
Click here for a super detailed Excel spreadsheet depicting aspects of the Enneagram.
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