‘Languaging’ the Enneagram

Mario Sikora
Aug 7, 2011

The International Enneagram Association held its annual conference in Ft Lauderdale on the last weekend of July. It was a great event and included a day of intriguing panel discussions as a pre-conference event. I was fortunate enough to be asked to participate on a panel titled “Languaging the Enneagram in Business and Organizational Settings.” It was a great panel with diverse points of view and gave me a lot of food for thought.

At the heart of the discussion was the question: “How do we present Enneagram material in secular and business environments, as distinct from a metaphysical or psycho-spiritual growth context?” This is something I care quite a lot about as I have been teaching the Enneagram in organizations for nearly 15 years now. I’d like to share my thoughts on language, spirituality, the Enneagram, and organizations in this inaugural blog post.
As a side note, one of the other topics of the panel was supposed to be “How do we define ‘spirituality’ for our purposes, a topic that was never really addressed. I wrote about this in an article called “Spirituality and the Enneagram in Business” on this topic for the IEA’s Nine Points Magazine, which can be found here. I won’t repeat that discussion in great length in this post.

The panelists had a fascinating diversity of background and point of view. Some felt that it diminished the work to teach the Enneagram without focusing on its roots in Naranjo, Ichazo, and Gurdjieff (blessedly, Evagrius and Plotinus were not included on the list). Others felt that it was perfectly fine to teach spirituality and the Enneagram in corporate environments, but since we never really defined what we meant by spirituality it is difficult to say exactly what they were advocating. One panelist asserted that the reason that anyone would advocate separating spirituality from teaching the Enneagram in companies is that they hadn’t done their inner work and were therefore uncomfortable with the concepts.
I agree that doing work on oneself is important for anyone teaching the Enneagram either in organizations or in other settings–if nothing else it reduces projection and transference and keeps trainers from inflicting their issues onto their audience. However, while perhaps I simply haven’t done adequate inner work, my view is that there are valid reasons for not emphasizing spiritual aspects of the Enneagram when working in organizations that extend beyond unsupported assumptions about the psycho-spiritual health of the consultant.
Those reasons fall into three general areas: suitability to the audience, effectiveness, and philosophical validity.
First, however, some distinctions are necessary. The word spirituality is a vague one, and means different things to different people. For me, it is helpful to draw a line and use the term spiritual when we are talking about the supernatural or metaphysical. (Since I already discussed this at some length in the article referenced above, I won’t go into the etymology of the word here, but it is a word with a complex history and most dictionaries today define it in somewhat religious terms.) If we use spiritual to talk about natural or physical matters, we can become fuzzy and there is probably a better term. For the business world, when we are talking about those “soft skill” activities that increase our sense of personal well-being, give us a sense of purpose, or improve our relationships, we are really just talking about the same sort of issues that secular philosophers have talked about for millenia, or we are talking about the kind of simple good manners that Peter Drucker referred to as “the lubricant of organizations.” To some, practicing mindfulness, improving communication, reducing conflict, creating shared purpose, etc., qualify as “spiritual.” This sets the bar rather low as far as I am concerned.
Second, it is important to point out that there are all sorts of companies out there, and cultural norms vary dramatically. Some consultants might be hired by a small, privately held company whose owner specifically wants spiritually oriented training in his or her company. If that is what the client wants, then by all means the consultant should provide it if he or she is so inclined. However, I work primarily with large, publicly traded companies. The leaders of such companies have a fiduciary responsibility to their shareholders to improve bottom-line results and when they hire consultants or trainers to help increase personal and interpersonal effectiveness, it is service of those results and not an attempt to further a spiritual agenda. Far be it for me to inflict mine.
So if we restrict use of the term spiritual to the supernatural or metaphysical, should be be talking about such things when we take the Enneagram into the world of large, public companies?
I say no, and, again, for three reasons:
The first reason is suitability to the audience. People go to work because, generally, they have to. They go to church because they choose to. Likewise, they do spiritual work because they choose to do so. If they want to do spiritual work, they have the opportunity to do so in their own free time. When we resist trying to do spiritual work with people in the workplace, we are not cheating them of anything; they can get it somewhere else. Even those consultants who want to do spiritual work in the workplace could do the same programs in a public arena and those same people who work at the client companies could choose to attend the programs in their own free time. And while many people in companies are more open to the kind of spirituality that many Enneagram teachers practice, many are not. They may have their own religious or spiritual practice. They may consciously choose not to practice spirituality or religion. They might just feel that their spirituality is a private matter that they don’t wish to discuss publicly. Thus, while some of the people one comes across in an organization may be eager for a spiritual approach to the Enneagram, the consultant has an increased risk of alienating some of the audience when linking spirituality to the Enneagram in a corporate setting. And when you alienate members of the audience you are not helping them.
The second area is effectiveness. The corporate executives I work with are busy people with a lot on their minds. While they are generally intellectually curious and learned, they rarely hire me to “teach them the Enneagram” or help them grow spiritually. They want me to help them develop the soft skills that will make them more effective (and in the process increase their sense of well-being and improve their relationships). I use the Enneagram to help them accomplish this, but I have to get to the heart of the matter quickly. Thus I found it necessary to frame the Enneagram in language that is simple without being simplistic. Some years ago, I was inspired by a passage in Claudio Naranjo’s “Character and Neurosis” where he referred to the Ennea-types as “adaptive strategies.” I loved the concept, and ultimately Bob Tallon and I developed a language of speaking about the Ennea-types as nine preferred strategies–striving to be perfect, striving to be connected, etc. Such language, while not spiritual, captures something fundamental in terms that are both accurate and appealing to a business audience, making it much more effective than speaking about vices, virtues, holy ideas, etc. You can read more about this “languaging” in my article here.
Finally, there is the issue of philosophical validity. Much of the spirituality I see associated with the Enneagram leaves me uninspired. I’ve already written about my concerns with the neo-platonic essentialism that underlies much of Enneagram teaching (see blog posting here). Further, some of what passes for spirituality in some parts of the Enneagram world is really just implausible and fact-deficient pseudoscience. This somewhat shaky foundation, for me, does not undermine the Enneagram. Saints and sages often described the empirical outcomes correctly even if they misidentified the mechanisms leading to those outcomes. There are very real personality dynamics that can be mapped to the Enneagram, but I believe the best way to understand those dynamics is through methods more modern than the approaches that some others would have us use.
These views may irritate some who teach the Enneagram in organizations (or elsewhere), but as David Hume wrote, “truth springs forth from argument amongst friends.” While I don’t agree with all of the things said by my co-panelists at the IEA conference, the experience gave me much to think about. I’m sure the conversation will continue….

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