Building Empathy through the Enneagram: Guest Blog by DJ Wayne
Yo, so the enneagram, looks like a pentagram, but don’t worry, there’s no connection. Stay at bay Satan, we are doing some self-exploration! For starters, the enneagram is a personality system. I first got introduced to all this personality stuff when my wifey, Anna, told me to take a Meyers Briggs test. I humored her, but I was skeptical. When I read my results, it told me I was an ENTJ, and that I am a heartless person who is obsessed with efficiency and likes to boss people around.
“Sounds about right,” I thought.
But then I read more, and it described how I think and put words to things that I couldn’t quite pinpoint about myself. In reality, I was mindblown and fascinated with what I was reading and this soon sparked another question: what personality type was Anna? So I asked her and then read up on her type and was like “yup, yup, yup, oooooh you totally do that, yeah you need to work on that, I literally told you this the other day!”
We had some great conversations, and we soon searched for compatibility information with our personality types. It explained the areas in which we get along and the areas in which we might have disagreements. It was like seeing a therapist or counselor or psychologist--which I had previously avoided because I thought I knew myself pretty well, and after all, I didn’t have the luxury of time to waste talking about my feelings . . . But now, I did know a thing or two and was equipped to handle any situation within our relationship. Cool!
So along came a little disagreement between Anna and I, and for context, she is an ENFP and I am an ENTJ. So we are both extroverts (E), and we both tend to take in information intuitively (N). This means we both like being around people and parties, and we both pay attention to patterns and ideas! Great! Where we differ is in how we make decisions. I prefer thinking/logic (T) and Anna prefers feeling/emotion (F). Classic! And the last thing is we disagree on our time and environment. Me, I like to make decisions (J, judging) while Anna likes to leave her options open (P, perceiving). So when the first fight rolled around, THIS GUY had some answers.
“Babe, so right now you are being emotional, and you kinda gotta stop it because this is an issue dealing with logic, and the fact of the matter is that I am right. Soooo I know this is awkward, but I’ll take it from here, just do what I say.”
Clearly, I knew what I was doing because I knew Meyers Briggs, and I am the logical one and Anna is the emotional one. However, as you might expect it didn’t go as expected, and she may have uttered some unsavory words in my direction, intended to cause as much damage as possible. We are talking about the letter after E and the letter after T directed at me! Oooof! Needless to say, our fight escalated and got really bad. I was dumb, and over time we learned that we could not rely on a personality test to explain away the other person’s perspective.
Eventually, we went to a legit counselor and had to talk through some stuff. I remember vividly that we got taught the ABCs of conflict resolution also known as mirroring. We take turns talking, explaining our perspective while the other person listens, and at the end, the other person repeats the other person’s perspective, and corrections can be made along the way until the person talking feels understood. It goes like this:
A. Describe the action that specifically occurred that started the conflict.
B. Describe how it made you feel, and what your physical response was.
C. Ask for a request for change.
The other person repeats as much as they can remember, describing the action, the thinking, feeling, the bodily reaction, and finally the request for change. Then it’s the other person’s turn. In the end, both sides feel understood, and that is the basis for conflict resolution. It is also known to generate a magical substance known as “empathy.” Anna and I have used the ABCs/ mirroring religiously ever since.
So I had learned my lesson to not use a personality test as a way to resolve conflict. However, I had not sworn off personality tests altogether. I started thinking, what is the application of a personality test? And, how should I use this information? I thought maybe I can use it to throw a great party where you invite the personality types that would get along and have activities that those people would enjoy. That would be great. I also thought that this would be a good way to profile people and manipulate people if I had bad intentions. It also made me think, I wonder if the CIA uses this to profile targets and persuade them. I can loosely confirm this, in that I was told by a former CIA field agent that the Meyers Briggs, “rules supreme in the intel world.” He also said, “The MBTI is a tool for unlocking personal performance as well as leveraging an offensive tool against targets.”
I mean ok, but I am not trying to manipulate people. Furthermore, you can see that many companies use a variety of personality tests both in the hiring process (does this personality have common traits associated with the position), and sometimes when they are trying to foster company cohesion and culture (let’s discuss our personality differences and get everyone to play well together). There is even a company called Crystal Knows that seeks to help salespeople sell by using machine learning to guess their customer’s personality, and then gives them tips on how to talk to that customer so they can close the sale. So, personality info is being used, but not in any way that resonates with me. It all seems a little disingenuous, and it didn’t seem to help me resolve conflict with my wife: it seemed to make it worse.
While going through and exploring all this, Anna started getting into the enneagram, and she told me that I needed to go take the test. I was like, “I already know the Meyers Briggs. Why do I need to learn another one?”
She said that the enneagram is better and goes deeper into our psychology. Uggggg I gotta now go learn a completely new personality system? This better be good. So I got into it, but I didn’t take a test to figure my type out. Instead, I read the descriptions of the types and narrowed my type down to the 3 and the 8. I resonated with the adaptive, excelling, and driven parts of the 3 and the self-confidence, willful, and confrontational nature of the 8. But the thing about the enneagram is that it gets to the heart of your core motivations and fears. I realized that I did not resonate with the basic fear of the 3, the fear of being worthless, as much as I did with the basic fear of the 8, the fear of being harmed or controlled by others.
This sparked a deeper conversation into things that I fear and desire in life. It encouraged me to explore what other people fear and desire in life. As opposed to the Meyers Briggs, which seeks to point out specific attributes of people, the enneagram gets at the core thread of what drives people in their decision-making process. The differentiation between the centers of intelligence and the core emotions provided another lens through which I can place myself in the world. As an enneagram 8, I am in the gut/anger triad, and I resonate with everything about it. I do get angry and express my anger when I see fit, and it puzzled me when people didn’t understand that emotion. Similarly, I could not relate to people who for one reason or another are fearful of something. Not to say that I don’t have my own fears, but I actively mitigate them and never dwell on them.
The same thing with shame: I don’t feel ashamed of who I am or necessarily proud. If I think about it, sure there are things that I regret or things I am proud of doing, but again I don’t dwell on it. I can tell when people don’t understand my anger and look down on me for being angry in the same way that I can look down on people who are in the fear or shame triads. Hearing about other people’s interactions with shame and fear seemed almost foreign to me, but I realize now we have vastly different experiences that can easily go unseen. People can tell when someone relates to the emotion they are feeling. For example, as an 8, I can relate with King Kong and his anger, when he gets mistaken for being the bad guy and gets captured and destroys everything when he feels helpless. That rage against the dying of the light, I feel that. When I joined the Marines, I loved that I could just scream. Some people lost their voices screaming, others did not: it’s probably because they thought it was stupid to scream (fear/thinking) or maybe felt dumb (shame/heart) screaming. But I didn’t care if I looked stupid or dumb. I was screaming away evil. I was screaming to protect my family. I was screaming remembering all the times I wanted to, but couldn’t. I was screaming because others couldn’t or wouldn’t. I was screaming because I felt like it. During boot camp and many times after in the Marines, anger, and rage felt like water to me, and I was always thirsty.
That anger resonates with me, and I know it doesn’t with other people. And when I was younger, I often let it get the best of me, and sometimes I still do. I remember being told by my dad every time I erupted and did something I shouldn’t have done, “Anger doesn’t solve anything.” He would go on to say that I needed to channel my anger into something good or into making something better. My dad understood my anger, and he helped me understand that it should be used not as a catalyst to destroy, but as a catalyst to create.
So where does this leave me today? Well, I am still here fighting with my wife every now and then, but I don’t use the understanding of personality to assume what she is thinking or feeling. I let her tell me herself. And I mirror her. When you assume what the other person is thinking or feeling, you are usually off to a bad start. There are two concepts worth mentioning if you ever take a debate class. They are straw-manning and steel-manning. If you were to straw man someone in an argument it would look like you voicing the worst parts of the other side’s arguments making them look dumb and irrational. Then you would swoop in and destroy this straw representation of whatever their argument was with ease. However, if you were to steelman the other side, it would look like you giving the other side the benefit of the doubt and voicing the best parts of the other side’s arguments in a very rational and cohesive way. From there, it’s not as easy to destroy their argument because you understand the merits of the other way of thinking, and you have built for them a good argument. You would have to be more surgical with your critique.
Interestingly, it’s harder to argue against someone who understands where you are coming from. There is another word that has a similar meaning to “understanding where someone is coming from.” It’s called “empathy.” Bazinga. If you look at our political discourse today, do we steel man the other side, or do we point out the worse parts on the other side? Does anyone have any empathy for the other side? Lol no. If we are talking in terms of the enneagram, we got to remember that the other side, no matter how bad they are, is made up of people driven by anger, fear, and shame. People can do some pretty messed up stuff when they are mad, afraid, or are having an identity crisis.
With that in mind, I have started a project where I am seeking to flesh out our differences and similarities. It’s called 9takes, and it alludes to the enneagram and the idea that there are nine takes or perspectives on any topic or situation. All it is right now is a question and answering system where you can ask questions but can’t see answers until you yourself have answered. You can sort the answers by enneagram type, where the idea is that this generates a little curiosity toward people who are similar and different from you. Maybe in a roundabout way, this can be used to resolve conflict before it arises. Maybe it will even generate a little of that magical substance known as “empathy” so crucial to good art. One can only hope.
DJ Wayne is a Marine Veteran turned Software Engineer. He recently launched his website www.9takes.com, an online community forum for enneagram enthusiasts or anyone curious to learn more about the enneagram. DJ is an enneagram 8, husband to Anna, a co-host of the podcast, and a ‘cool dad’ to their daughter Lily Birdie.
DJ is always learning something new and working on a project, whether it's growing oyster mushrooms in their kitchen, reading about marketing tactics, or exploring enneagram Discord channels. He currently lives outside of Baltimore, Maryland.
Check out his website www.9takes.com and follow the 9takes Instagram account https://www.instagram.com/9takesdotcom/ and follow his personal account https://www.instagram.com/djwayne3/ .