A Research Paper By Benny Callaghan, Leadership and Life Coach, AUSTRALIA
The Enneagram in Coaching
The Enneagram is a powerful tool with enormous potential for unlocking human potential. When used well in a coaching context, it can help move the client towards greater self-understanding and see past their blind spots. At the same time, the Enneagram is a complex system with multiple nuanced layers. It is easy to be misused and can limit a client’s self-understanding if approached in a surface-level way that plays to common stereotypes.
The challenge of working ethically means that members will inevitably encounter situations that require responses to unexpected issues, resolution of dilemmas and solutions to problems.—ICF Code of Ethics[i]
Ethics is a central tenet of any coaching practice. It is a core part of the ICA program and ICF members agree to uphold the ICF Code of Ethics. ICF recognizes the dynamic nature of ethics, including the potential of coaches to encounter unexpected situations in work with a client. The key goal of this paper is to explore the ethical dimensions of applying the Enneagram in a coaching practice.
The paper will provide a background to the Enneagram including its potential benefits for use as part of a coaching program. This will naturally also include an exploration of common misunderstandings and traps that practitioners can face. I’ll incorporate personal examples as a way of demonstrating some of the system’s nuances, which are based on over twenty years of study and practice in my own life, with family, friends, and clients. The final section will outline several ethical principles coaches may consider in using the Enneagram in their practice.
How the Enneagram May ‘Show up’ in Coaching
There are two ways a coach may engage with the Enneagram in a coaching practice. First, the coach may be an Enneagram practitioner or have an interest in this tool, wanting to promote their skills and capabilities as part of their coaching practice. Second, a client may come to a coaching engagement having previously used or explored the Enneagram. Having an awareness of the strengths and limitations of the Enneagram system will help the coach be able to respond to the client in a way that is helpful while operating within the realm of their own expertise.
The Enneagram is a complex tool that requires genuine expertise for application in a coaching context. Having read a book or two is not sufficient in making one qualified or competent to use the Enneagram in coaching. Like studying with ICA or other ICF-accredited coach training schools, getting recognized training in the Enneagram is important.
Social media has contributed to the rise in the Enneagram’s popularity, but a lot of content includes soundbites of information that can be highly reductive and misleading. When meeting a client who is interested in the Enneagram, asking about their background and understanding of the tool is important. There are some ‘red flags’ that may point to a limited understanding of it, including “I’m a ” or generalized comments like “all Type 3s are like that.”
As we’ll unpack in this paper, the Enneagram is a map for understanding the self, but the map is not the territory. Every person’s experience of their ‘type’ is highly individual, and no two people of the same ‘type’ are alike.
Background to the Enneagram
The enneagram is a nine-pointed star (ennea being the Greek word for nine). The Enneagram community will often point to Socrates and other historical teachers as having influenced and used the system. However, in its contemporary expression, the Enneagram was pioneered by Chilean psychiatrist Claudio Naranjo in the 1970s, as part of broader work integrating psychology and spirituality.
Naranjo was influenced by Oscar Ichazo, who in turn was influenced by philosopher, George Gurdjieff. Naranjo was influential in bringing the Enneagram to the United States and taught many of the early teachers like Helen Palmer and David Daniels[ii].
While there are thousands of Enneagram teachers and dozens of schools internationally, two stand out as prominent. The Narrative Enneagram[iii] tradition was founded in 1988 by Helen Palmer and David Daniels and remains the most recognizable teaching school internationally. They have a coach certification program. The Enneagram Institute was founded in 1997 by Don Riso and Ross Hudson. They created the Riso-Hudson Enneagram Type Indicator[iv], which is arguably the most respected of the type-assessment tools.
How the Enneagram Works
The Enneagram recognizes nine patterns of human motivation. Unlike other ‘personality’ tests, it recognizes that humans are fluid beings who move between these patterns depending on their health, stress, security, or circumstances. As an example, my leading ‘type’ structure is a Seven, but there are also times that I access or draw upon the patterns of Types One, Four, Five, and Six. One’s Enneagram type develops as a set of defense patterns to help us survive in the world. This set of defense patterns and motivations can be thought of as one’s ego structure and are often unconscious.
Over time, because these behaviors become so familiar and locked in, it is easy to mistake this for who we are. We can form an identity around these behaviors and perspectives. Some popular social-media Enneagram teachers perpetuate the idea that the Enneagram can help us become the healthiest version of our types. While this might practically be true, it is also a limiting perspective. Seeing ourselves as more than our type can create greater awareness and cognitive flexibility to see that we have more options beyond the default behaviors and defense patterns of our type. For me, it’s important not to overidentify with my leading type as a 7.
Instead, I use the Enneagram as an internal map for seeing how I am showing up at any moment. Knowing this can help open more options in how I might respond to opportunities and experiences in life.
The most important thing a developer [or coach] can do for a learner is to listen in an active way. This includes hearing not only what is said, but also how it is said and what it means; recognizing, then encouraging or challenging, the learner’s patterns of thinking, feeling, and behaving, particularly those that support or detract from the learner’s goals and ultimate growth; and having the experience, intuition, and wisdom to know when to just listen and when to say or do something.—Ginger Lapid-Bogda, Bringing Out the Best in Everyone You Coach[v]
As outlined by Lapid-Bogda, when used well, the Enneagram offers a powerful tool for coaches to understand the learning patterns of a client and be able to respond to help them towards their own optimal growth. Ethics is about more than the avoidance of harm; ethics is also about maximizing the good. As such, coaches should continually seek to develop their ability to serve their clients’ development.
The Enneagram and Personality
Your personality isn’t permanent. The most successful people in the world base their identity and internal narrative on their future, not their past.— Benjamin Hardy Ph.D.[vi]
Contrary to popular belief, personality isn’t permanent. In his book, Personality Isn’t Permanent, psychologist Benjamin Hardy debunks the idea that personality is fixed. He is also critical of the limitations of tools like the Myers-Briggs Type Inventory and the Enneagram.
But it is true that our underlying motivations can become fixed by the time we move into adulthood. While I recognize the limitations of the Enneagram, I have also seen it be helpful in moving beyond the fixations of one’s ‘type.’
The key lesson from Hardy’s work is that personality should not be approached in fixed or static ways, but rather recognizing personality as fluid and adaptable as one moves through life into new situations and conditions.
Misconceptions of the Enneagram
The Enneagram is more than an assessment tool, and indeed, treating it as such is very limiting. The Narrative Enneagram tradition discourages the use of a traditional psychometric assessment tool. Instead, it uses an interview format that, by asking cascading questions, seeks to bring awareness to the client of their own motivational preferences and empowers the client to identify for themselves where they see themselves on the Enneagram. In this sense, this approach fits most neatly with the principles of coaching.
Some ‘types’ look alike. Unlike other personality assessment systems, the Enneagram recognizes that from the outside two people of the same type can appear very different. At the same time, two people of different types (e.g., types 3 and 7) may initially appear similar. The important distinction here is that the Enneagram is not concerned with outer behavior so much as an underlying motivation.
Another unique dimension of the Enneagram is that one’s ‘personality’ will adapt to different situations. Stress, for example, will bring out new qualities or types. In various Enneagram literature, these movements around the Enneagram are referred to as going towards ‘stress’ or ‘resource’ points.
For example, I may most consistently rely on the patterns of ‘Type 7,’ but I also find myself reacting with the qualities of ‘Type 1’ or finding support in the realm of ‘Type 5.’
The Challenge of Mistyping
A trap for both the practitioner and client is that it is easy to mistype others or be mistyped. I have met many people whose self-understanding about their ‘type’ has developed and changed over the years. Therefore, it is important to be conscious of how one talks about themselves in relation to the Enneagram.
One thing that distinguishes the Enneagram from many other personality tests is that it focuses on the motivation behind one’s behavior, more than the behavior itself.
I’ve heard it said that most personality systems are concerned with how the world sees you, whereas the Enneagram maps how you see the world.
There are many factors that go into why we might be mistyped. First, humans are complex and ever-changing. We are not static beings, and our behaviors and underpinning motivations are influenced by stress and the context we are in.
There Are More Than Nine Types
Enneagram is often thought of as having nine types when the literature talks about twenty-seven distinct types. One element that doesn’t show up in most online tests is that of subtype, which is driven by the human instincts for self-preservation, one-to-one intimacy, and social connection.
I lead with a type 7 and have a strong social instinct that shows up in my work that is very driven toward social change. As a social subtype, I find I often have more in common with people with a social subtype than I do with other Enneagram 7s. This can be a common experience. From experience in working with others using the Enneagram, these underlying instinctual patterns offer immense opportunities for exploring motivational preferences, energetic drivers, and blindspots.
Ethical Considerations in Applying the Enneagram to Coaching
Here are several ethical principles I’ve developed in my own practice, which could have relevance to coaching beyond using the Enneagram.
- As a coach, it is important to get ongoing coaching. When working with the Enneagram or other similar systems, it is best to work with it in your own life before using it with others. Coming to a deeper understanding of your own patterns as a coach will aid the ability to acknowledge one’s own implicit biases.[vii]
- Items 20 and 21 of the ICF Code of Ethics outline the importance of working within the realms of your training and competence and accurately communicating one’s experience and expertise.
- Item 16 of the Code of Ethics requires coaches to get ongoing professional development. If wanting to use the Enneagram, this may involve getting requisite training from reputable or accredited organizations and teachers (the Narrative Enneagram has an ICF-accredited module for continuing education[viii] and a Practitioner Certification[ix] for coaches).
- Take free online tests with a grain of salt. Use online tests as a way of gathering information, not to diagnose.
- Avoid typing people or making assumptions based on behavior or stereotypes. Instead, ask evoking questions to help the client come to a deeper understanding of themselves and empower them to use language that is meaningful for them.
- Be aware of your language. For example, talk about the pattern instead of the person. For example, “I am noticing this pattern within myself right now” instead of “I am such a Three.”
- Remember the client’s understanding of themselves is more important than your knowledge of the Enneagram. All coaching work must be client-centered. Like any knowledge domain, it is easy to fall into the trap of being an expert. Ground all coaching explorations and work using the Enneagram (or other tools) in helping the client further progress towards their goals and self-understanding.
- Be careful using this tool when working with children and adolescents whose personality structure is still developing.
In addition to these coaching-specific ethical considerations, the Narrative Enneagram has also outlined other ethical considerations for use of the Enneagram that may be worth considering[x].
Powerful Uses for the Enneagram
The Enneagram is a powerful tool with immense potential for helping clients deepen their self-understanding. At the same time, it is a tool that requires skills, knowledge, and awareness to employ effectively and to be able to avoid its traps and limitations. Ongoing education and clarity of communication about one’s expertise, as well as placing the client at the center of the coach’s approach, are key to developing and applying the Enneagram with ethical skill and care.
[i] “ICF Code of Ethics,” International Coaching Federation
[ii]Palmer, Helen (1988). The Enneagram: Understanding Yourself and Others in Your Life, Harper Collins.
[iv]Riso, D.R. and Hudson, R. (1999). The Wisdom of the Enneagram: The Complete Guide to Psychological and Spiritual Growth for the Nine Personality Types, Bantam Dell.
[v]Lapid-Bogda, Ginger (2009). Bringing Out the Best in Everyone You Coach: Use the Enneagram System for Exceptional Results, McGraw Hill.
[vi]Hardy, Benjamin (2000). Personality Isn’t Permanent: Break Free from Limiting Self-Beliefs and Rewrite Your Story. Portfolio Books.
[vii]Acknowledging Implicit Biases, The Narrative Enneagram, https://www.narrativeenneagram.org/code-of-ethics/
[viii]Enneagram Intensive 2, The Narrative Enneagram, https://www.narrativeenneagram.org/foundational-courses/
[ix] Narrative Enneagram Practitioner Certification, https://www.narrativeenneagram.org/practitioner-certification/
[x]“Ethical Use of the Enneagram,” The Narrative Enneagram, https://www.narrativeenneagram.org/code-of-ethics/