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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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  • Posted by:  Leslie

    How do we figure out our type? Do we just read the descriptions? Or is there a test or something that can reveal one’s type?

  • Posted by:  susan

    Check out this post:
    Let me know if you have questions!

  • Posted by:  Stacey

    The enneagram is an amazing tool and I’ve been typed as a counterphobic 6. I have taken different tests and have come out as a 6 and a 3, but when I read about the types I’m convinced I’m a 6. When I read your “unauthorized thoughts” about a 6 I chuckled because I can definitely tell you all that can go wrong in a situation! I’m attending a weekend training in March with Clarence Thomson that I’m very much looking forward to.

    I was introduced to this model by my husband, who has already studied with Clarence and it is very helpful to me in my life and my work. I wish everyone knew about and understood the enneagram! It’s helped me manage many relationships.

    Thank you for posting about it.

  • Posted by:  susan

    I’d love to hear about your training in March. Is it about the enneagram in general or a particular aspect of it?

    Thanks for being in touch and I also wish every understood the enneagram! Would make life a lot easier.

  • Posted by:  Karen

    I tried to click on the link to figure out my number but received the message that the URL isn’t found on this server. How can I find out my number? Any help would be greatly appreciated!

  • Posted by:  John

    Thanks for the great post, Susan. I’ve just recently discovered the Enneagram and am using it in work I’m doing with a career coach. I’m finding it particularly useful as a dharma practitioner to help shine a light on conditioned patterns and tendencies in relationship and at work.

    Here’s another free online test for anyone looking to discover their type: )

    Thanks especially for the spreadsheet. Great stuff!!

  • Posted by:  susan

    You’re welcome, John. I use the Enneagram every single day of my life at work. And as a practitioner, I find it enormously supportive in just the way you describe–shining light on habitual patterns and thus self-liberating them. Hugely helpful.

    Would love to hear how your Enneagram studies progress and if I can be helpful in any way, let me know.

  • Posted by:  Kerstin

    Hi Susan, I landed here in a very roundabout way and I realize this is an old post. But I just wanted to say that this is one of the best explanations I have seen for the Enneagram. I so wish more people would be “into it.” My previous therapist introduced me to the Enneagram and it’s been such a monumental eye opener. Thank you for this great post! Kerstin

    • Posted by:  Susan

      Kerstin, I’m so glad you liked this post. The Enneagram is truly one of the most helpful tools I have ever discovered. Glad you found it, too.

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