Enneagram Makes a Difference — 1. Relationships
This reflection is part of a series exploring an approach to the Enneagram* that is nuanced, applied in daily life, and grounded in the Spirit. Additional posts are linked below.
GROANS OR GASPS MAY BREAK OUT as I introduce Enneagram Types. Folks can feel chagrin as they recognize themselves, or they might be shocked that others could be so… different!
The Enneagram is one of the best ways I’ve found to learn about and honor varied temperaments. I apply Enneagram wisdom with my family, friends, faith community, teaching, and in spiritual accompaniment of others. I rarely say anything aloud, however. I’m not analyzing, labeling or pigeon-holing people; it’s just not appropriate to tell someone their type.
The Enneagram has grown my compassion for the varied gifts and struggles of being human. It’s become a gentle background radar, flashing signals on an inner screen to help me navigate conversations or facilitate groups.
I’ve got some education in psychology, learning styles, pastoral care, faith development, navigating ethnic diversity, and conflict management. But the Enneagram has surpassed these resources in my personal tool box. In recent years, it has made a truly meaningful difference in my relationships.
First, the Enneagram is meant to be about individual inner work, not relationships. We each need to grow in awareness of our own patterns of attention and response to situations. They are deeply ingrained in our thinking, feeling, and doing. Without some personal effort, it’s hard to even imagine how differently other people think, feel, and do their own lives! That self-referential bubble won’t survive an introductory survey of the Enneagram.
When we’ve got some handle on the gifts and drawbacks of our Enneagram Type, the landscape of relationships takes on new dimensions. Nowadays, I’m watching for glimpses of each person’s essential Goodness; I’m noticing hints of underlying motivations or fears; I’m stepping forward when I might have hung back in groups, and encouraging some people to step back instead of forging ahead to make things happen. I’m asking questions about feelings of people who don’t often mention emotions; I’m asking other folks questions about thinking when they’re in active hyper-drive.
I don’t teach directly about the Enneagram and relationships, but we hear insightful stories from diverse Enneagram Types in each group I facilitate: Someone who identifies with Type Nine describes how they do so much but don’t feel like they matter. Another who sees herself as a Type Two recognizes that she’s trying to earn love by helping others. In supportive circles, we can ask respectful questions: As a Type One, what does principled, disciplined action look like for you? How do you as a Six feel about the future? What’s it like for an Eight to be vulnerable? The stories are all very, very different. The stories bring our human variety to life!
Here’s a story about my adult daughter who lives with me and my husband (told with permission). She is pretty clear she’s an Enneagram Type Five, and we’ve tangled about shared household chores. For many years, we heated our little home with wood. Every week or so we’d run through the stack on the side porch, and we’d ask our daughter to refill with a couple wheel barrow loads from the woodshed. It might or might not happen. Or it might take …for….ever….
As a Four, I could have interpreted this personally: I’m not important to her life; she’s disrespecting me as a parent, etc. That’s an emotional response, and neither imaginary scenario is true. It was not about me. As a Seven, my husband was for just getting it done: I could haul that much wood in ten minutes! What’s the problem? Fix it already! He was thinking ahead, imagining the effort from the perspective of his high “do it” energy. That’s just not like a Five. All very frustrating for a couple loads of firewood.
One of most useful things I learned about Enneagram Type Five, was that these folks start the day with a limited amount of energy, and it doesn’t get replenished till the next day. Every action is a drain on that one bucketful, whether or not they are conscious of the pattern. If they overdo it, they crash and burn. So, they need some warning for any “ask” that impacts their energy.
Do you hear how our temperaments were working at wild cross-purposes?
I eventually took to prompting our daughter three days ahead of time: Looks like we’ll need some firewood in a few days. Could you take care of that? I was respectful and clear, without questioning her capabilities or values. Fives are strong thinkers, motivated to be competent and self-sufficient, but can be overwhelmed by required effort. It’s not that I live with an absent minded professor, but sometimes her head really is elsewhere.
The Enneagram did not solve our firewood drama, but it did make me and my husband kinder about the chores. It helped me reframe our family’s needs in ways that our daughter could hear with less discouragement. Then this summer we got a heat pump installed. The wood stove will be a cozy back up from now on. Hallelujah.
The Enneagram evoked respect, compassionate awareness, and new options for responding. What a gift for our relationships!
It’s likely that exploring the Enneagram merely to improve relationships is misguided. But sometimes our love for others, or hopes for better relationships, can draw us in. Through that door, our own less-than-healthy patterns will probably become obvious. Mostly we want peace between us—comfort in another’s company, to be known and appreciated, to collaborate in meaningful efforts, or to take care and be taken care of. These wise words remind me:
“If it’s peace you want, seek to change yourself, not other people. It is easier to protect your feet with slippers than to carpet the whole of the earth.” (Anthony de Mello, 1931-1987).
If you’d like to learn more about the Enneagram and relationships, I recommend an accessible book by Suzanne Stabile, The Path Between Us: An Enneagram Journey to Healthy Relationships (2018). She also hosts The Enneagram Journey podcast (free), which explores relationships in several episodes.
Or attend a Way of the Spirit residential retreat on personal spiritual growth through the Enneagram, October 19-22, 2023, in Mt. Angel, Oregon. No experience required. We’re accepting applications by October 1st for up to 15 people. Details below.
An Approach to the Enneagram
*If you’re not familiar with the Enneagram, it’s an ancient wisdom tool describing nine ways of seeing and experiencing the world, or nine personality “types”. The Enneagram Types have unique strengths and challenges, so at its best the Enneagram can prompt astonishing psychological and spiritual growth. It helps us tend what we bring to relationships, work, and a life of faith and faithful service or activism.
If you’re considering attending an Enneagram retreat or workshop through the Way of the Spirit program, these posts can help orient you:
- Enneagram: Not a Test — Introducing the Enneagram as much more than a one-off personality test
- Enneagram: Coming Home — Charting varied paths of growth toward True self or Enneagram Essence
- Enneagram: For Integration — The Enneagram maps our thinking, feeling, and doing, and invites the best, healthiest use of all three capacities in a given moment.
- Enneagram: Helpful Quaker Baggage, Pt 1 — Like Quaker spirituality, the best of the Enneagram encourages attention to both the inner life and outer relationships.
- Enneagram: Helpful Quaker Baggage Pt 2 —Like Quaker spirituality, the best of the Enneagram emphasizes process over outcome, integration of the inner with outer life, and the sacred with the ordinary