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Enneagram theory | is it useful; is it true?

In 2010, I wrote a series of blogs and invited several respected Enneagram teachers to write guest blogs, all on the topic of different theories that comprise the contemporary Enneagram, particularly the Enneagram of personality. My motivation for focusing on this aspect of the Enneagram was driven by what I has been observing in the field for a while, which I will describe in general terms below, with no names attached. The no names is intentional because something occurs too easily when challenges are posed or observations/opinions are made and people take this personally when it is really more useful at the phenomenological level. So, no names!

What I had observed in the Enneagram era of the 1990s and into the early 2000s was that people who learned the Enneagram and were working with it held on very tightly to the particular theories and particular language they had learned from their particular “teacher,” the person who taught them the Enneagram and who they respected. As a result, there were heated and not particularly productive arguments about who was right. These controversies even went to the labels used for each type, whether the subtypes (aka instinctual variants) mattered that much, mattered more than the types or less than the types. These heated discussions or even silent arguments – because people often wouldn’t even engage one another – were more apparent at the “student” level than the “teacher” level because the “students” carried on the belief that their “teacher” had it right.

I was always of the belief that if I were going to use a particular theory or sub-theory in my teaching, I first needed to know if it were useful and true. For me, whether a particular “teacher” I respected said it was so didn’t necessarily mean it was true and useful. Jerry Wagner, Enneagram teacher and colleague, keynoted at an IEA conference several years ago where he covered the importance of asking the hard questions about the veracity of the Enneagram theory we embrace and, especially, that we teach. If we teach theory that is not grounded in reality, we (unintentionally) harm those we teach and the Enneagram’s potential contribution to a more elevated human consciousness.

How to determine if a theory is true and useful
This is complicated and challenging. There are an increasing number of people putting out speculative ideas as theory. We need new ideas to further evolve the Enneagram, but are they true (an accurate representation of reality, if there is a real reality) and are they useful. Some people may spout an idea, just to see if it “lands” or gets traction, an idea that comes from their mind rather than what is objectively observed. Some may offer an idea as theory, stating it in an authoritative way, as a way to distinguish themselves from other teachers (not a good example of working with the ego structure, but then I am an idealist!).

Here’s what I look for to get a sense if a theory is true (enough)
Experts | Do people I respect think it is true and why do they think this?
Assumptive basis | What are the theory’s assumptions and are they valid assumptions?
Logic | What is the logic connecting the theory’s parts? Does it make sense?
Cross comparison | What other theories – ones that seem true – would confirm or disconfirm this new theory? Is the new theory compatible with a theory I already believe or would it replace it, which is OK if the new theory is true? Is the theory better than something that preceded it, so that it is truer than its predecessor?

Example | team theory integrated with the Enneagram: forming, storming, norming and performing
Ten years ago, I attended an IEA (International Enneagram Association) conference session on team development and the Enneagram that used (misused) this team development theory. The presenter inserted a new stage between storming and norming that he called the “honeymoon” stage. The problem was that I am an NTL (National Training Labs) member, and NTL – specifically, an NTL member in conjunction with NTL – created the original model in the 1960s based on social scientists observing this particular stage model in hundreds of groups. Since that time, the model has been tested and retested and it has stood the test of time. I personally have worked with this model for 30 years and have never ever seen a “honeymoon” in teams after the storming stage. Sometimes there might be a “honeymoon” quality during the forming stage, but this doesn’t last. Sometimes there is a real “honeymoon” feeling in the performing stage, but it is only after having gone through the other stages in sequence and akin to renewing one’s wedding vows.

In personal relationships, perhaps one can make a case for a honeymoon after a big fight, but teams are not one-to-one pairings. When I mentioned to the presenter after the session, he simply said, “I don’t care; this is my theory.”

But he should have cared because his theory simply wasn’t accurate. So when he tried to integrate the types with his theory, it just didn’t work.

Here’s what I look for to get a sense if a theory is useful
The logic of useful versus true is a curious one. Can a theory be true but not useful? I would suggest yes, that a theory might be true but it doesn’t illuminate anything that helps us (1) describe a phenomenon in a way that tells us something we didn’t already know; (2) the theory doesn’t predict future response; or (3) there’s nothing particularly developmental about the theory; it doesn’t add anything to our psychological or spiritual development and transformation. The three areas above are what I look for in a useful theory.

Here’s another question I’ve pondered. Can a theory be useful but not necessarily true? I think this is possible, although it doesn’t seem logical. But read the example below.

Example | the arrow lines on the central triangle 3-6-9
This is an example of something that shook me up in a good way, where a theory may not be true but it may be useful. Five years ago, I was talking with Patrick O’Leary by phone, asking him if he had an idea where the theory of integration-disintegration came from – I was thinking Naranjo or Ichazo, possibly – since I couldn’t find the source. Patrick was an early Enneagram author, a smart and straightforward ex-Jesuit who was part of the Robert Och’s group of Jesuits studying the Enneagram in Chicago in the 1970s.

What he told me that was so amazing wasn’t about the integration (relaxation point) and disintegration (stress point) but about the inner triangle and the arrows. According to Patrick, when the Jesuits got the symbol via Naranjo, there were no arrows on the inner triangle, only on the hexad lines (1-4-2-8-5-7-1), so they spent several years asking why and experimenting with the inner triangle arrows: no arrows, arrows going both ways, arrows going as we now have them, or arrows in the opposite direction. They decided it worked best as we currently see it (6-3-9). So this version of the Enneagram arrows is within the last 40 years. Is it true?

Once over my shock – shock because I had been a believer – I remembered many things. First, many early Enneagram symbols have no arrows on the central triangle, but do have arrows on the hexad. Some early symbols have no arrows at all! Second, I remembered how quite a few people who are on the central triangle do have difficulty deciding if they are 6s or 3s, 9s or 3s, 6s or 9s, or 6s, 3s or 9s. Some people even seem to move quite quickly between these numbers.

So is the theory of the arrow lines on the central triangle true? I’m not really sure. Is it useful? I think yes, as many people do relate to the particular flow – for example, 3s numbing out at 9 when stressed, 6s moving to 3 with some pressure, and 9s becoming more fearful and insightful at point 6.

Summary
As the Enneagram moves forward and evolves, my hope is that we can ask one another and ourselves whether new theory (and old theory) is both true and useful. And when we disagree, my hope is that we can ask, “How do we know this is true and useful?” through dialogue and questioning rather than through argumentative debate.

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Jeff Lyons
Jeff Lyons
6 years ago

This is a great post.  When you stop asking questions about the very foundations of a thing (“is this even true?”) then you become a true-believer, not true practitioner.  Science is always looking to disprove theory, not validate it.  “How can I break this idea,” is the objective.  The less breakable some idea appears to be, the more solid the theory, but it is always theory, never fact.  “Scientific fact” is an oxymoron.  It should be the same way with the Enneagram.  This is not chemistry or physics, but the same spirit of thoughtful skepticism needs to be used. I… Read more »

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