An Approach to Using the Enneagram

By Mario Sikora

There are two elemental approaches to coaching, as there are to many things: the tactical approach and the strategic approach. The tactical approach focuses on behaving differently—stop doing this, start doing that. The strategic approach takes a broader view, focusing on patterns of thinking that influence our behavior and modifying those patterns so that it is easier to change behaviors with great long-term success.

An effective coach uses both approaches. Sometimes a client simply needs a quick fix, a new behavior that they simply hadn’t thought of before. For example, recently I was working with an executive who liked to catch up on email late at night. The problem is that while it is a convenient time for her to work, it made her subordinates feel that they should also be working at that time, and that they needed to respond to the boss’s emails immediately. This meant they were staying up past midnight responding to emails that could easily wait until the next day. The simple tactical advice I gave her was to use the draft folder—write the emails at night and send them in the morning. It was a simple solution to a problem that she could easily adopt.

Often, however, behavioral change is more complicated than a simple tactical switch. Many times clients are unable to do something that they already know they should be doing. They know they should be more patient with a particular subordinate, for example, or perhaps be more comfortable asserting themselves in a senior-level staff meeting. Something keeps them from making the change, however; in their head they know they should behave in a different way, but something in their gut keeps them from changing. This is usually because they are experience some kind of cognitive dissonance—they genuinely believe that the change would be beneficial, but they hold an even stronger belief that causes an internal conflict regarding the change. In these situations, the stronger belief will win and the new behavior will be difficult to incorporate. (For example, a Six may understand at an intellectual level that they need to take more risks, but their deep-seated need for security will undermine their efforts to do so.)

The Enneagram is an excellent tool for coaches, but it is easy to see the model as a guide to tactical changes—“If you are a Five, you need to connect to other people more;” “if you are a Six, you need to overcome your fears;” etc.

There is nothing wrong with these nuggets of tactical advice, but if the coach focuses on the “what to do” without resolving the “why to do” obstacles, they are merely skimming across the surface and any changes that a client is able to make will likely be short-lived. Coaches operating this way miss the true value of the Enneagram—helping people expose and resolve unconscious conflicting commitments. Trying to make tactical changes without resolving the cognitive dissonance is like trying to implant an organ from a donor with the wrong blood type; the host will reject the change in a short time. Resolving these commitments helps clients change their story about the world, reducing cognitive dissonance and creating fertile ground for the change to take place.

The rest of this article will discuss how to incorporate the Enneagram in a strategic way and provide a brief overview of my approach to coaching, an approach I call “Awareness to Action Coaching.” (“Awareness to Action Coaching” takes it’s name from the book I coauthored with Robert Tallon, “Awareness to Action: The Enneagram, Emotional Intelligence and Change,” which describes the Awareness to Action change process. The “Awareness to Action Coaching” program and approach I offer through Enneagram Learning International, however, is a significant expansion of that model.)

At the heart of all strategic coaching interventions is helping the client switch from short-term solutions to long-term problems to long-term solutions to those same problems. Understanding the Ennea-types as manifestations to an overreliance on a particular adaptational strategy helps to identify what short-term solutions the client is relying on and it can be used to help the client develop more effective long-term solutions.

Good strategic coaching is grounded in the effective use of solid heuristics.  Heuristics are mental models or “rules of thumb” that help to guide our thinking in solving problems. Good heuristics help us narrow down the possible causes of the problem and provide a structure for creating solutions. As the term “rule of thumb” implies, heuristics are not fixed laws, they are useful approximations. Good heuristics can be invaluable aids to our thinking, but they should never be counted on to work in every situation.

The “Awareness to Action Coaching” program centers on a series of Enneagram-based models that have proven to be useful to me in my work with leaders. These models help narrow down the high-probability obstacles to the clients growth, and once we understand the obstacles we can apply the Awareness to Action process in removing them.

Those models are:
In addition, the program incorporates the leadership models described in my article,  “Awareness to Action Leadership.” In a sense, the models in ATA Leadership identify what leaders should be focused on improving; the models in ATA Coaching provide the coach tools for helping them do so.

It is important to note here that the coach should always be focused on the change the client needs to make whether it fits with the coach’s assumptions about the client or not. For example, it is easy to assume that because someone is, say, a Two, they will need to focus on taking care of their own needs. After all, Twos are often viewed as selfless helpers who are always worrying about others instead of themselves. This is not always the case, however; many Twos receive feedback from others that they are actually too focused on their own needs and that they seem insincere in their attempts to help others. I recommend that the coach always try to get some kind of objective feedback on their clients (say, through a 360-degree assessment) and focus the intervention around the real needs rather than start focusing on issues that some book says people of a given type should work on.

That said, I have noticed a pattern of common derailers that seem to appear time and again in each of the Ennea-types. Being aware of these derailers not only helps the coach be on the lookout for particular patterns of behavior, they can be very useful in helping to assess Ennea-type. For more on this, please see Appendix D of “Awareness to Action.”

(While this article focuses on the use of the Enneagram in coaching, it is important to note that no single model is sufficient to equip one to be a coach, especially in organizations. Peter Drucker famously said that management is like a liberal art; I would say the same thing about coaching. Yes, the Enneagram is a valuable tool to a coach, but coaches should have many tools in their kit and use the right one at the right time.)

The Three Instinctual Biases

I have written elsewhere about the importance of understanding the instincts for coaches. (You can find an article here or view a series of videos here. Suffice it to say here that the instincts are at least as important as the Ennea-types in helping clients get unstuck, and I will write more on them in future articles.

For this article, I will just point out a couple of things about the instincts:

First, I use different names for the instincts than are normally used in the Enneagram world. This is partly due to the awkwardness of the term “sexual subtype,” but it is also due to my feeling that the existing names don’t capture the full scope of the phenomena at work in these domains. Thus, I refer to them as “Preserving,” “Navigating,” and “Transmitting” rather than traditional “Self-Preservation,” “Social,” and “Sexual” (or “one-to-one”).

Second, there seems to be a predictable relationship to the instincts; if I know which instinct is dominant I also know which one is under-developed and which one is a shadow issue. This is a tremendous aid to a coach.

The Nine Strategies

Along with the instincts, I immediately try to understand the role the nine strategies play in hindering my client’s attempt to change. Neither the instinct nor strategy, or even both of them together, will be the root of every developmental challenge a client is facing, but they are the root of a disproportionate number of problems so it is useful to look at them first.

I was inspired to think about the Ennea-types as the result of strategies when reading Claudio Naranjo’s “Character and Neurosis,” in which he briefly refers to the them as “adaptational strategies.” He writes that it is “a learning under duress characterized by a special fixity or rigidity of what behavior was resorted to in the initial situation as an emergency response” (p.6-7). He doesn’t say much more about this idea but it stuck in my mind and became the kernel around which my view of the types grew.

Each strategy is represented by a non-conscious need to feel a certain way. This affective need shapes the way we think, which in turn influences our behavioral choices and perception of the world. The Six, for example, is “striving to be secure;” they need to feel secure, they think in ways that increase their security, and thus they behave in ways that they believe will increase their security. Understanding this is a critical starting point in shaping a coaching strategy for the client.

The nine strategies are listed in Table 1.

TABLE 1: The Nine Strategies

One

Striving to be Perfect

Two

Striving to be Connected

Three

Striving to be Outstanding

Four

Striving to be Unique

Five

Striving to be Detached

Six

Striving to be Secure

Seven

Striving to be Excited

Eight

Striving to be Powerful

Nine

Striving to be Peaceful

The central problem we have when it comes to creating change is that we develop behaviors and attitudes that worked early in life as responses to short-term problems and, because the brain likes to simplify life by fixing on a solution that seems to work, those responses became habits that sometimes prove ineffective later in life. For example, the Six’s risk aversion is a good short-term solution to helping him feel more secure when he is younger but it can hold him back later in life and perhaps even jeopardize his career. The short-term solution becomes a long-term hindrance.

Once the coach understands the way the strategy is distorting the client’s view, the coach can apply the Awareness to Action process as I have described it previously (see article here or video here)

At the heart of the Awareness to Action process is the idea that by rewriting the way the client defines their preferred strategy they can change their story about the world and change from being trapped in short-term behaviors that undermine long-term solutions to facing the world in a way that is flexible, open, and responsive to the circumstances at hand. Continuing with Type Six as an example, the client may rewrite their understanding of the strategy from “avoiding risk will keep me secure” to “if I don’t learn to take some degree of risk I will be less effective at work, which will really threaten my security because I might get fired.”

Understanding this rewriting of the strategy will help coaches avoid failure caused by a focus on tactical fixes so common in the Enneagram literature. I must rewrite the story—change the way I think—before a mere tactical change will be able to take root. If I believe at some level that the new behavior will undermine my strategy—my trusted and reliable way of approaching life—I will ultimately abandon that behavior.

I have found that it is often easier to get change to occur not by adopting completely different strategies but from a gradual process of redefining our preferred strategy so we are able to be adaptive rather than stuck in outmoded views of the world. Continually rewriting the strategy so that it is broader and less restrictive leads to the flexibility needed to adopt other strategies when they are appropriate.

The Connecting Points

In “Awareness to Action,” we referred to the strategy found at one’s Enneagram point the preferred strategy because it is the one that we rely on most commonly as a non-conscious default pattern. That is, it is our preferred strategy for solving problems. People familiar with the Enneagram know that there is significance to the connecting points of the diagram. We referred to the connecting points, commonly referred to as the stress and security points, as the support and neglected strategies. Our rationale for this reflects the bias of a coach—we get into trouble when we fall back on the support strategy to reinforce our preferred strategy or when we neglect a strategy that could be useful to us at a given time. The developmental goal is not to be more like one type or less like another, it is to learn to use the strategies in a healthy, adaptive way rather than avoid them or use them maladaptively.

A fixated Nine, for example, who’s preferred strategy is “striving to be peaceful,” will overuse this strategy, neglect to use the strategy at point Three of striving to be outstanding at critical times when the strategy is called for, or fall back on the strategy at point Six of “striving to be secure” in maladaptive ways in order to help them maintain a feeling of being peaceful. As a coach working with a Nine, I would be looking out for these patterns and helping the client rewrite their strategies so they can be used appropriately.

The Core Qualities

Again, the strategies heuristic does not address every problem. Another model I use is what I call the “core qualities,” fundamental aspects of the human condition that become stunted in our childhood. Very often, the client is not aware of how this stunting of the core qualities affects them, but when stress builds and they are particularly self-reflective, they will see how the stunting has left them feeling deficient and vulnerable.

I’ve also written about the core qualities elsewhere and rather than go into them in detail here I will refer the reader to that article. The nine core qualities are listed in Table 2.

TABLE 2: The Core Qualities

One

Objectivity

Two

Compassion

Three

Value

Four

Individuality

Five

Intuition

Six

Will

Seven

Joy

Eight

Vitality

Nine

Benevolence

The model of the core qualities helps the coach further refine what issues may be obstacles to the growth of the client. Continuing on with Ennea-Type Nine, as a coach I know to be on the lookout for issues related to the quality at point Nine and the connecting points of Three and Six. I know that there is a high probability that the stunting of these three qualities is an issue that needs to be addressed. I know that at a deep level, a level the client may not be often aware of, they feel that in they are in some way deficient in benevolence (the feeling of being basically good), value (a feeling of inherent worth independent of accomplishment), and will (the confidence in one’s ability to survive and prevail over one’s circumstances). This knowledge helps me better understand the internal obstacles the client faces and how to help the client overcome them.

The Accelerators

The dilemma with the core qualities is that they are not something that you can force to grow. They were stunted in childhood and need time to grow to maturity. The analogy that I use is that they are like sapling on its way to becoming an oak tree; you can’t pull on the sapling to make it grow but you can create an environment that will nurture its development. This is where the fourth model, the accelerators, comes into play.

The Accelerators are practices particularly useful to people of the correlated Ennea-type. Practicing the accelerators helps us grow and be more flexible, but in particular it helps us create a state of mind that helps the core qualities mature. (The complete list appears in Table 3.)

Again, using Ennea-type Nine as our example, the client would benefit from practicing generativity (cultivating the next generation through coaching, mentoring, etc.), purpose (clearly defining and articulating the “why” of their life), and faith (acting with confidence today based on evidence of past performance).

I recognize that this very brief introduction to the core qualities and accelerators may not give the reader a vivid picture of the concepts. For more information, please see this article.

TABLE 3: The Nine Accelerators

One

Acceptance

Two

Empathy

Three

Purpose

Four

Individuation

Five

Conscious Practice

Six

Faith

Seven

Enjoyment

Eight

Self-Discipline

Nine

Generativity

Putting it Together

 Combining the strategies, core qualities, and accelerators gives the coach a very robust model of what obstacles hinder each Ennea-type from creating change and a clear action plan for overcoming those obstacles. Charts that show these elements combined into diagnostic and remedial charts for Ennea-type Nine are shown in Figures 1 and 2.

Part of the “Awareness to Action Coaching Program” is learning how to apply the nine diagnostic and remedial charts in work with a client. The diagnostic charts serve as a primer of things to watch out for while the remedial charts provide a guide for what to do about the problems the coach identifies.

One should not assume equal importance in all nine issues shown on the diagnostic charts; at any given time one or a few of the issues will be acute and the others are of less concern. The chart is meant as a reminder to the coach of obstacles to watch out for during an engagement.

Likewise, the Remedial Chart shown in Figure 2 is not meant as a recipe for working with a Nine; most coaching engagements are far too short to allow for working on all of these issues. It is meant as a guide for the coach to appropriate corrective action once the diagnosis is made.

While no model is complete, I have found that there are few obstacles to growth whose removal cannot be hastened by use of the charts, combined with a knowledge of the dynamics of the instinctual biases.

Summary

Awareness to Action Coaching is a robust, Enneagram-based approach to working with clients at both the strategic and tactical levels. The models described here help the client modify the way he or she thinks about the world, learning to seek long-term solutions rather than short-term solutions to the developmental challenges they face. Combining it with the Awareness to Action Leadership model adds a tactical (or “what-to-do”) element to the coach’s work with his or her clients. 

In future articles I will talk about some of the qualities that a good coach should have.

Stay tuned….

(For more information on the how to attend the “Awareness to Action Coaching” training program, contact me at Mario@enneagramlearning.com.)

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