People who know me well know that I love the Enneagram. I appreciate that the system is dynamic, allows people to grow and develop, and provides helpful hints on how to bring out our inherent best. I use it in my work – with executive teams to develop empathy and communicate more clearly. I use it with individual leaders to help them leverage their natural gifts and be more aware of their blind spots. I use it with couples to see how they unconsciously, predictably trigger one another and foster alternative ways to engage.
Recently my friend Liz (and co-creator of the best chocolate ever at Ococoa) asked how I discovered the Enneagram. My first exposure was from my parents. They had gone to an Enneagram workshop and came back evangelists for the insights they had gotten. My dad’s intensity was explained (he’s an 8); my mom’s tendency to support everyone else and forget to advocate for herself had a clearer explanation (she’s a 9). More importantly, they were inspired to do some personal growth work. They were not “limited” by their awareness of their types, but rather encouraged to see themselves and each other in new ways, offer kind feedback about their default patterns, and share empathy for the other’s struggle.
My mom had “The Wisdom of the Enneagram” by Don Riso and Russ Hudson out on the counter for months, and anytime I visited their house, we would talk about our types, using the book as a reference.
At that time, I was a newlywed. I had moved to New Jersey and was struggling. My husband was in a PhD program, and I felt isolated. I had left all my friends and found the prospect of making new ones daunting. My husband and I had a bike crash and the physical and mental toll from those tangled handlebars hung heavy over us. His energy was gone. I was escaping my pain through working harder and traveling. The more critical and demanding I became of him, the more he checked out. We were reaching an impasse.
I remember telling a friend that he wasn’t the man I fell in love with and married. I’m sure I wasn’t the woman he wanted to share his life with either.
That winter while we were home for the holidays, my mom suggested that we attend the same Enneagram training she and my dad had attended a few years earlier. I don’t remember the details of how she did it, but Nate and I both thought it was our idea to go, and so we registered.
In a small room in Atlanta, as Russ Hudson described each of the Enneagram Types and the intricacy of the system, I felt like I was being reminded of something I already knew. Everything he said just made sense. The Enneagram described patterns of people’s behavior that I had seen in my life better than anything else I’d learned (even with a Master’s degree in Sociology from Stanford, and certifications from several coaching training institutes).
When he got to the Type 1, my husband laughed with recognition. And I cried. Russ put words to the invisible experience of my life. He explained my inner critic and striving for perfection in a way that didn’t make me feel judged, but understood. All of my attempts to improve our marriage that had instead been driving us apart came to light. I had been trying so hard, but creating the opposite result. As I learned about my personality, there was grace for myself that I hadn’t experienced before.
When Russ got to Nate’s type, the same thing happened, only in reverse. I laughed, understanding the behaviors that had just the day before made me angry. And Nate cried, having his inner experience articulated in such a way that we now shared a vocabulary to discuss what had been happening. We spent the rest of the training in deep conversation about our types, how we had been triggering each other, and how we could appreciate the other person instead of getting lost in the conflict.
Currently, I use the Enneagram primarily in corporate settings. I believe the human and relational dynamics that create the highest performing teams (or sabotage even the best ideas) are consistent. The Enneagram is like a Swiss Army knife, a tool that can be used to clarify most behaviors and situations.
But, I love the Enneagram because it saved my marriage.
Now, I know that Nate and I actually saved our marriage. We worked hard to reconnect, to address the patterns that had been hurting us. Each of us took responsibility and worked on ourselves. We did it; but the Enneagram was the tool that let us do the work.
To learn more about all nine Enneagram types and see how you can use that knowledge in your own personal and professional relationships, take the KWK Academy Online Enneagram Course. For a personalized exploration about how to bring out your best, choose an option with coaching.