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From dating to the workplace, the ancient Enneagram can transform relationships

An ancient personality typing system called the Enneagram has recently developed a cult following among the religious in America. People use the 9 types to understand themselves more deeply and to develop an awareness of their unique motivations, needs, temptations, and emotional wounds. But Suzanne Stabile, an Enneagram master and author, posits ways this system can help forge more life-giving relationships.

In “The Path Between Us: An Enneagram Journey to Healthy Relationships,” Stabile teaches readers how to identify their own relational strengths and weakness while demystifying others’ behavior patterns. Here we discuss her ideas and I let her break down some of my own blindspots based on my Enneagram type.

RNS: Some readers may not be familiar with the Enneagram. It’s exploded in recent years but is an ancient system, right?

SS: The Enneagram is perhaps best defined as nine ways of seeing and nine ways of processing our experiences in the world. Additionally, there are nine ways of answering some of life’s basic questions like, “Who am I?” and “Why do I do the things I do?”  While the origin of the Enneagram is unknown, it has been referenced in all faith beliefs in one form or another for at least several hundred years. The Enneagram is unique in what it offers us as we make our way from who we are to who we hope to be.

READ ALSO: “What is the ‘Enneagram,’ and why are Christians suddenly so enamored by it?”

RNS: How does the Enneagram work, and what makes it helpful?

SS: Like all great wisdom tools, the Enneagram names for us what we intuitively know to be true about ourselves but haven’t yet articulated for ourselves. In my experience, most transformative experiences require self-awareness. Because of the pace of Western culture, along with what Richard Foster describes as the “new tools of the devil” (muchness, manyness, noise, crowds and hurry), self-awareness is becoming more and more elusive for most people. It is very difficult, if not impossible, to change what you cannot name.

On a deeper level, the Enneagram offers an understanding of what all philosophies would call native or central intelligences. There are three: thinking, feeling and doing. Unfortunately, we all depend primarily on two of the three, which leaves us living life in an imbalanced way, and that results in an unnecessary weariness that we are all trying to manage.

On an even deeper level, each Enneagram number is associated with a sin or passion that is a major stumbling block in our efforts to live more productive and peaceful lives. The passions associated with the numbers are the seven deadly sins, plus deceit and fear. The Enneagram’s definition of each of these sins differs somewhat from the cultural definition, and once it is learned and understood, this is a very valuable piece of wisdom.

RNS: What makes this better than other personality-typing frameworks such as Myers-Briggs and Strengths Finder?

SS: In terms of other personality-typing systems, I think they’re all good, and each has its place. As a spiritual wisdom tool, the Enneagram names us — both weaknesses and strengths — and at the same time provides us with information and opportunity to do something about what we’ve learned.

The Enneagram, unlike the other systems, is not static. There is a lot of movement on the Enneagram. Within the organized framework, each number is offered an opportunity to both take care of themselves in times of stress and explore more mature behavior in times of security. I think the Enneagram is unsurpassed in identifying both strengths and weaknesses as we seek some kind of transformation in the ways we engage with life.

RNS: How can the Enneagram help people better navigate relationships?

SS: Before learning the Enneagram, I assumed that everyone saw the world in essentially the same way. The fact that there are nine ways of seeing is a blessing. We can all learn enough to have some mastery regarding the eight ways of seeing that differ from ours. Managing conflict, negotiation, compromise and consensus all depend on our willingness to both acknowledge and work toward understanding and valuing other points of view. Without some balance in the three centers of intelligence, we unfortunately focus and function at the lowest possible level. With accessible information, we can be much more generous in our respect for difference and the value of collaboration in our relationships.

In relationships where we encounter one another frequently, most exchanges are predictable. The problem is predictable, the response is predictable and the discussion is predictable. The Enneagram can affect that in a meaningful way. For example, you can say things using a number that you would never say using someone’s name. Communication styles for each of the nine numbers are different, so you can learn to talk to others in the way they can hear.

RNS: How can the Enneagram improve one’s dating life? Does it work as a framework for sorting through who you are compatible and not compatible with?

SS: In my experience the important thing in all relationships has to do with how healthy each person is. At any given time, one can be healthy in their number, average, unhealthy, in excess or pathological. The movement from healthy through average and into unhealthy is frequent. We all have good days and bad days. We all have moments of selfishness and stubbornness and generosity and grace. This reality determines compatibility.

RNS: Can the Enneagram be a helpful tool for marriage counseling? If so, how would that work?

SS: There are many ways it would be helpful. The most important is the reality that we are really quite different from one another. That discovery is half of the work in improving any relationship. I do a lot of Enneagram work in the recovery community. One of their favorite truths is, “Every expectation is resentment waiting to happen.” Good Enneagram teaching can help in avoiding both expectations and the resentment that often follows. There are lots of specific ideas in “The Path Between Us for addressing expected disconnection between numbers and fragmentation in relationships.

RNS: How can this tool help parents raise their children?

I have some concerns about trying to assign Enneagram numbers to children. They have a lot of growing up to do, and most labels can hinder that process. And, depending on the depth of Enneagram wisdom the parents have onboard, the children could be seen and understood to be a number they are not. To manage that reality, in our ministry we use animals instead of numbers to begin to understand children:

  • 1 = worker bees
  • 2 = kangaroos
  • 3 = eagles
  • 4 = butterfly
  • 5 = owls
  • 6 = bunny rabbits
  • 7 = monkeys
  • 8 = lions
  • 9 = turtles

My advice is to be the healthiest you can be in your number and model that for your children.

RNS: How would you uniquely use the Enneagram in a corporate setting other than what we’ve discussed here?

SS: I would add that each Enneagram number has a time orientation.

  • 1, 2 and 6 = Present
  • 4, 5 and 9 = Past
  • 3, 7 and 8 = Future

Orientation to time has a lot to do with how we behave in the workplace, and it is very helpful to know that about colleagues.

RNS: I’m a 3 with a 2 wing, which is an achiever with a helper wing. What are my biggest relational blind spots, obstacles and pitfalls?

Image courtesy of Intervarsity Press

SS: Threes take in information with feeling, but don’t use feelings to process the information they’ve taken in (until they’ve learned the Enneagram).

Threes’ orientation to time is the future. They are most often focused on goal-setting and achievement and are prone to miss what is happening in the current moment.

Threes are feeling-repressed.

Threes are impatient with inefficiency and ineffectiveness.

Threes cut corners, while other numbers do every step of a task correctly.

Threes can be the poster child for any group they belong to. That means they are good at image-crafting. Sometimes that is hard for the people who are consistently in their lives.

Threes are primarily motivated by external applause. There are things they will do for image that they would not do for self-satisfaction.

Threes are multitasking, high-energy people. Sometimes it’s very difficult for others to keep up.

Threes have trouble reading feelings: their own and others’.

Threes prefer to say too little rather than too much. Sometimes “too little” is not enough in relationships.

If you’re experiencing a period of time where you’re not healthy in your number, then threes tend to problem-solve without emotional participation. The fascinating result of that is that in a relationship, a problem can be solved but the other people can still not feel like they have been heard.

And also, you tend to believe you are valued and loved for what you do instead of for who you are.

RNS: Which type am I most compatible with romantically?

SS: If you’re doing your work, you’re compatible with anyone else who is doing his or her own personal work.

RNS: Which type will I likely have a lot of relational strife with?

SS: No specific number.

I actually believe we are in a relationship crisis. We are becoming more and more polarized as we try to navigate the episodic meaning that defines our lives both individually and collectively. And, we seem to know ourselves by what we are against instead of by what we are for. We’re more tribal than at any other time in my lifetime, and as a 67-year-old, that is astonishing to me. Henri Nouwen, a self-identified two, said, “Healing begins not where our pain is taken away, but where it can be shared and seen as part of a larger pain.”

I want to be part of healing that pain, and what I have to offer is the wisdom of the Enneagram. When people are taught the Enneagram by someone who knows it well, it can change how they see the world and how they interact with those who see it differently. Once people are exposed to this ancient wisdom, they begin to respond to difference with curiosity instead of judgment. They respond to misunderstanding with compassion instead of rejection, and diversity becomes a gift instead of a stumbling block.

“The Path Between Us” is my effort to reintroduce the people who read it, first to themselves and then to everyone they know. From that place of understanding, what we have the potential to do together knows no bounds.

RNS: Originally the Enneagram was passed down with a vow of secrecy. The early teachers of it were afraid that it would become a cheap parlor trick. Do you think the popularization of the Enneagram has realized their fears?

SS: There are two sides to everything. I’m grateful for the new interest in the Enneagram, and I also think it will be trivialized by many. But there will also be people who take the time to learn it and use its wisdom for the greater good. When I teach workshops, I tell the participants that they will probably be sure of their number by the end of the day, but I guarantee that they will be more compassionate.

The generations that have followed the baby boomers seem to be more interested in understanding themselves individually rather than collectively. It seems that they have more space for difference and more tolerance for “the other.” The Enneagram, by its very nature, fits within that context as a way of thinking.

At this time in our culture, people don’t seem to be turning only to the church to try to understand life. It doesn’t take long on a journey toward self-knowledge to develop an interest in tools like the Enneagram that have a way of explaining how we’re like other people and how we are different. From my perspective as a Christian, I would add that the Enneagram helps us in knowing ourselves, so that we might know God and then better understand ourselves in relation to God. 

RNS: How can the Enneagram help someone find a unique set of spiritual practices suited for them?

SS: Most people share in common the first two stumbling blocks on a serious spiritual journey toward transformation. The first thing they encounter is everything they don’t like about themselves. That experience is usually followed by the concerns and wounding they bring from their family of origin. The wisdom of the Enneagram addresses both effectively.

We are each, by Enneagram number, well-suited for some spiritual practices but not for others. Some of us are thinking-dominant, some feeling-dominant and others doing-dominant. There is great frustration in trying to engage in a spiritual practice that isn’t suited to your number. And there is value in practicing spiritual disciplines that challenge your dominant center while helping develop the other two. A healthy spiritual practice will include a variety of disciplines that require thinking, feeling and doing.

This story is available for republication.

About the author

Jonathan Merritt

Jonathan Merritt is senior columnist for Religion News Service and a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He has published more than 2500 articles in outlets like USA Today, The Week, Buzzfeed and National Journal. Jonathan is author of "Jesus is Better Than You Imagined" and "A Faith of Our Own: Following Jesus Beyond the Culture Wars." He resides in Brooklyn, NY.

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