The Enneagram can help us understand why each of us deals with conflict differently — and how we can find common ground.
Brian and Cindy had been talking about a life together.
Now, they were on the verge of breaking up.
Brian felt Cindy was spending too much time with her children and grandchildren, who lived in other states. In his view, this meant she didn’t have enough time for him.
Cindy felt Brian was being overly controlling and selfish.
When they asked for my assistance as a professional mediator, Cindy was on the brink of moving on.
Listening to stories of their respective disappointments, I immediately recognized familiar patterns to their complaints. Cindy wanted connection (with Brian and her family); Brian wanted loyalty (mainly from Cindy). Ultimately, their desires weren’t all that different, but from their vantage points, the gulf seemed insurmountable.
As a tool to help people gain insight into each other’s hearts, I like to use a system known as the Enneagram of Personality Types. The Enneagram synthesizes a number of spiritual traditions, including the wisdom of ancient Christian mystics, Sufi teachings, and the writings of Russian spiritual seeker G. I. Gurdjieff. The version I use today was formulated in the late 1960s and early ’70s by Bolivian-born philosopher Oscar Ichazo, founder of the Arica School.
“Ennea” is Greek for nine; “gram” is a figure or something written. The Enneagram explains nine basic personality types — perfectionist, helper, achiever, individualist, investigator, loyal skeptic, enthusiast, leader, and peacemaker. Each has its own worldview, personality traits, motivational patterns, and ways of interpreting experiences. (See “The 9 Personality Types,” below.)
Knowing your Enneagram type empowers you to maximize your inherent strengths, comprehend your weaknesses, and understand your relationship with other personality types.
And so I introduced Brian and Cindy to the Enneagram in the hopes of helping them work out their differences.
It was clear to me right from the beginning that they were different Enneagram types. Cindy struck me as a type 2, also known as a helper or giver. These types are motivated foremost by maintaining connection and relationship with those they care about. In Cindy’s case, this was her children and grandchildren; she was willing to do anything to retain their love and approval.
I suspected Brian to be what’s known as the loyal skeptic, or type 6. These types tend to be most concerned about safety, security, and certainty. Brian wanted to be absolutely sure that the person he cared most about was someone he could trust and depend on as his primary source of emotional comfort.
In their respective inner worlds, Cindy and Brian each felt threatened by the behavior of the other, although neither understood precisely why.
Each was caught in a win-lose, either-or scenario. It was kids, or partner. Because of their instinctive orientations, they were unable to see that they could have both.
After I introduced Brian and Cindy to the nine personality types of the Enneagram, they began to understand how their habits, unique to each dominant type, were limiting them. And they came to see that leaning too hard on their own way of seeing and doing things kept them from getting what they most wanted.
In fact, the very ways they were trying to create connection were causing a rift that was driving them apart.
With time, Brian and Cindy came to understand and respect their differences, and see that they both wanted the same thing — to be together. They sought ways for each of them to feel secure and recognized.
They also realized that the characteristics and default tendencies that had almost driven them apart were also exactly what they so much liked and appreciated about each other. They balanced one another.
This kind of epiphany is part of the reason I believe it’s so useful to learn one’s Enneagram type — and, on occasion, how to play against it.
The 9 Personality Types
The Enneagram teaches that each of us is born with certain innate tendencies that shape our personalities. Once we understand our predispositions — both positive and negative — we become empowered to make more conscious choices about how we behave and relate to others. (To determine your own type, take an assessment at www.enneagraminstitute.com or any of several other Enneagram-related sites. — The Editors)
Type 1: The Perfectionist or Reformer
Hillary Rodham Clinton: “We must stop thinking of the individual and start thinking about what’s best for society.”
They dedicate themselves to causes and ideals and live to make the world a better place. They can be wise, perceptive, and transforming. They can also be harsh and judgmental.
Type 2: The Helper or Giver
Byron Katie: “Seeking love keeps you from the awareness that you already have it — that you are it.”
Blessed with a caring, nurturing approach, they want you to love them, and they want you to know how much they care about you. They can also be needy and resentful.
Type 3: The Achiever or Performer
Tony Robbins: “There is no such thing as failure. There are only results.”
Highly motivated by image and success, they know they’re the best at what they do, and they tend to go to the top of their fields. They can also be impatient and ruthless.
Type 4: The Individualist or Romantic
Tennessee Williams: “Don’t look forward to the day you stop suffering, because when it comes you’ll know you’re dead.”
Artistic, romantic, and deeply feeling, they craft their experiences into art that’s as unique as they are. They can also be self-absorbed and melancholic.
Type 5: The Investigator or Observer
Bill Gates: “I like my job because it involves learning. I like the fact that if people really try, they can figure out how to invent things that actually have an impact.”
Perceptive, cerebral, and independent, they crave privacy that lets them delve deeply into their interests. They can also be secretive and standoffish.
Type 6: The Loyal Skeptic
George Carlin: “Do I value a flag? No, of course not. Do I value words on a piece of paper? Depends on whose words they are.”
Careful and cautious, their minds are often preoccupied by things that might go wrong. They’re attracted to authority — and distrustful of it at the same time.
Type 7: The Enthusiast or Epicure
Goldie Hawn: “If your eyes still look at life with wonder, then you will seem young, even though you may not be chronologically young.”
In love with adventure, variety, and new experiences, they live for the moment and know how to have fun. They can also be insatiable and easily distracted.
Type 8: The Leader, Protector, or Challenger
Bette Davis: “I survived because I was tougher than anybody else.”
Tough and aggressive, they love intensity. When a challenge rears its head, they react immediately, charging right toward it. They can also be brutal and unforgiving.
Type 9: The Peacemaker or Mediator
The Dalai Lama: “All human beings are the same. We all want happiness and do not want suffering.”
Easygoing, agreeable, and optimistic, they can find common ground with almost anyone. Humble, they think of themselves as no one special. They can be indecisive and conflict-avoidant.
The Harmonics of Conflict
Each Enneagram personality type has unique characteristics, yet stressful situations reveal what they have in common. Faced with conflict, the nine types break into three subgroups. Each of these “harmonic groups” has particular strengths, but when one style is used to the exclusion of the others, problems can arise.
The Competence Group: “Let’s Be Logical.”
Perfectionists (type 1), Achievers (type 3), Observers (type 5)
These types like to get things done. They tend to handle conflict by putting aside their personal feelings and striving to be objective, effective, and competent.
These are the people who say, “OK, we’ve got a problem. Let’s be sensible, find a solution, and move along.”
Competence types have little tolerance for the subjective aspects of a conflict, like hurt feelings. They try to resolve arguments logically, in a problem-solving mode, and they expect others to do the same.
Strengths: This approach tends to attack problems, not people, a strategy that is useful in managing almost any conflict. The levelheadedness of Competence types often helps them imagine solutions to problems relatively quickly.
Weaknesses: Unwavering avoidance of the emotional content of an argument means that others frequently feel that “real” issues never get addressed. And since emotions usually have to surface before people will move off reactive positions, the sole use of a competence approach can easily lead to intractable conflicts.
The Positive Outlook Group: “What Problem?”
Givers (type 2), Enthusiasts (type 7), Peacemakers (type 9)
These types feel that conflict is best avoided. If they must deal with it, they handle problems by first focusing on what is working. They seek common ground and do their best to minimize thorny issues.
If pushed to confront a problem, they’ll quietly push back. They might ask why you’re bringing it up now, or suggest that you have the conversation some other time. They’re also likely to be the person who states that there’s no point in focusing on the past. The positive-outlook approach prefers to put difficulties aside and focus on how to make the future better.
Strengths: Focusing on what’s working and what will be helpful going forward is a key component of effective conflict management. Getting mired in the details of who said what or the exact timelines of events doesn’t serve anyone.
Weaknesses: Strict focus on what’s positive also avoids the more complex feelings and emotions that keep people entrenched in their positions. Simply shying away from the more difficult or challenging aspects of a conflict can be an unrealistic approach to resolution.
The Emotional Truth Group: “Feel Me Now.”
Individualists (type 4), Loyal Skeptics (type 6), Leaders (type 8)
These types like to get to the heart of a matter. They don’t take to logical explanations or optimistic assessments of a difficult situation; they want to go directly to the emotional truth.
They will wonder whether you are authentically invested in understanding their side of the story. Can they trust you? Until they feel sure that their feelings have been recognized, it’s hard for them to move forward.
During conflict, Emotional-Truth types (or “emotional-realness” types) deal with feelings first. Once they do, things can usually blow over fairly quickly — and permanently. If they’re not able to air their feelings, however, these types can become increasingly resentful and vindictive.
Strengths: Focusing on the emotions beneath the conflict, even though it can be unnerving for others, almost always helps move a situation forward.
Weaknesses: Emotional venting with no logic or optimism has its risks. The endless rehashing of feelings and events can make the other party feel provoked and tends to intensify conflict.
Playing Against Type
It’s important to recognize that, whatever your default conflict style, unless you are aware of the default styles of others, you naturally risk alienating at least two-thirds of the people you know.
If you’re a Competence type, you’ve likely been told, “You’re too distant.” If you’re a Positive Outlook type, you’ve surely heard, “Stop avoiding the problem!” And if you’re an Emotional Truth type, you often hear, “You’re too emotional.”
It might seem like life would be easier if we could just spend all our time with people from our same harmonic group. But this creates its own difficulties.
When both people in a relationship are Positive Outlook types, conflict avoidance is the order of the day. Put Emotional Truth types together and there’s the risk of endless, passionate arguments. And Competence types easily maintain a kind of professional distance, even when they’re in love.
So are we doomed to play out the tendencies of our Enneagram types in conflict?
Not at all. The key to navigating conflict effectively is to become aware of our default relating style. Then we can learn to incorporate the best of what the other styles have to offer. You can always adopt some of the tendencies of a different Enneagram type to balance out your own habitual inclinations.
- If you’re perennially logical and objective (a Competence type), address the emotional side of a conflict first.
- If you’re naturally conflict-avoidant (the Positive Outlook type), experiment with being the first person to address a problem, and do so without being in a rush to resolve it.
- If you’re the first to cry, yell, and express your feelings (the Emotional Truth type), try holding back and looking at a conflict situation from a more neutral perspective.
Any of these strategies is likely to feel unnatural at first. What’s more, the people around you are likely to be surprised at your strange behavior.
Still, you may find that when you stop defending your usual way of seeing things, you’re able to see entirely new things. This includes being able to comprehend another person’s viewpoint in a way you were never able to before.
When people feel seen, heard, and understood about the issues that are most important to them, conflict has a way of resolving — and staying resolved — with considerably greater ease.
For me, as a professional mediator, the great thing about the Enneagram is that it can make sense of many of our habits and behaviors without requiring anything of us except self-awareness.
When we begin to notice habits of thought, emotional reactivity, and behavior, including our automatic approach to conflict, we find we have the freedom to choose our battles — and how we engage in them.