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Introduction Chapter to “The Notes and the Melody: An Introduction to the Awareness to Action Approach to the Enneagram”

 (This is the introduction to my new composer_notesmini-book, “The Notes and the Melody: An Introduction to the Awareness to Action Approach to the Enneagram.” The full book can be obtained at my Amazon author page. Chapter Three of book, which addresses the instinctual biases, can be found on my blog.)

In 2006, I wrote a series of articles called “The Notes and the Melody: A Simple and Pragmatic Approach to the Enneagram” for The Enneagram Monthly describing my model of the Enneagram. Rereading those articles today, I’m surprised by how much of what I wrote then still applies to how I work with the system today. But there have been some changes in perspective, particularly regarding the instinctual biases, and it seems like a good time to revise those articles and present the concepts in this new format.

I’m reluctant to call this volume a “book” as I am currently working on a larger book that spells out these ideas in much more detail. Let’s consider this a primer—an introduction to the framework I have developed over many years of teaching the Enneagram.

In a sense, this primer is also a rationalization—an explanation for why I felt this new approach was necessary. Many excellent books have been written about the Enneagram and various teachers have expounded on the system. I have learned from many of them, either personally or from their writings, such as Don Riso and Russ Hudson, Helen Palmer, Tom Condon, Jerry Wagner, Claudio Naranjo, and others. I am even fortunate enough to call many of them my friends. So, I approach this task with a respect and gratitude for their work that may not have come through in the original articles.

One might think that learning from them and using material they developed would be enough, but when I started using the Enneagram in my work as an executive coach and leadership-development consultant I started to feel a void in the existing literature and theory. None of the books or approaches were quite right for my audience or precisely matched what I encountered with my clients.

The point I made when I first wrote the “Notes” series was that a particular approach was needed for the business world—an approach that was simple, logical, and free of psycho-spiritual language.

But I was only telling half the story. Yes, I wanted to develop a model that spoke to my audience, but I also wanted an approach that spoke to me and was consonant with my way of thinking about the world. My intellectual heroes are people such as David Hume, the ruthless skeptic who demanded that any significant claim be supported by evidence; William of Occam, he of Occam’s Razor, the philosophical principle that any explanation should be as simple as possible (but no simpler); and the Zen masters of Japan who prized clarity, precision, and focus as a path to profound insight.

The result of my quest for a coherent model of the Enneagram that satisfied the demands of working in organizations while meeting my internalized and highly subjective criteria grew into what I now call “The Awareness to Action EnneagramTM.” The development of this approach is not meant to in anyway imply a deficiency in the work of the teachers I mentioned above. Still, I think there is room for different perspectives on the Enneagram. As the Vedas says, “Truth is one, the sages speak of it by many names.”

I want to acknowledge that some components of this approach were first described in “Awareness to Action: The Enneagram, Emotional Intelligence, and Change,” which I co-authored with Bob Tallon. Bob and I described the nine Ennea-types as being rooted in nine adaptive strategies and we described the “Awareness to Action Process,” a three-step model for creating change. My Awareness to Action EnneagramTM adds some elements that were not in that first book:

  • The Three Instinctual Biases(sometimes referred to as “subtypes” or “instinctual variants”),
  • The Nine Core Qualities, deep-seated aspects of human nature that become stunted early in life, and
  • The Nine Accelerators, specific practices that speed progress for each of the Ennea-types.

Be warned now that I do not go into detail about each of these elements in this primer. My goal with this update of the “Notes” articles is to give an overview of the Awareness to Action EnneagramTM. A future book will put the meat on the skeleton described herein; this volume is only meant as an introduction to the fundamental concepts.

That said, my view is that my clients (and my readers, I believe) are smart enough to take these fundamentals and infer many insights as they apply them to their own experience of themselves and those around them. As an executive coach, it is not my role to do my clients’ jobs for them, it is to equip them with frameworks, explain how to apply those frameworks in broad strokes, and let them explore and experiment with the applications. My hope is that the reader of this primer can do the same with this approach to the Enneagram.


 “The first mistake is in thinking that there is a self; the second mistake is in thinking that there is not.” 

Sunryu Suzuki

The Enneagram of Personality is actually two models in one:

  1. A model of personality “types” (called Ennea-types) that identifies nine different kinds of people. (By Ennea-type, I mean a person who displays one of nine specific habitual patterns identified by the Enneagram model.)
  2. A model of the dynamics of the individual mind.

The first model helps us understand why Tom is different from Mary and both are different from me. It helps us make sense of people and why they sometimes do the strange (to us, at least) things that they do. This is its most simple use, and the one that is fraught with danger—people are unique and they are endlessly complex; any simplistic attempt to categorize them and put them into easy boxes is sure to lead to stereotyping and overlooking the richness and depth of the individual.

At the same time, these patterns of habitual behavior that fall into these nine broad categories are real and it can help to see the habitual patterns that plague us, as long as we remember to also step back and see the complexity and variation beneath the simple labels. Assuming that all Ennea-type Nines, for example, are exactly alike is like assuming that all Europeans or all basketball players are exactly alike. Thinking about people in terms of their Ennea-type should be the start of our attempts to understand them, not the end.

And yet, people do fall into these typical patterns and understanding them improves our relationships and interactions with our world.

To paraphrase Suzuki—the first mistake is to believe we are our Ennea-type; the second mistake is to believe that we do not fall into one of these patterns much of the time. A simple rule of thumb is that the more habitually and mindlessly we act the more likely we will exhibit our Ennea-type for others to see; the more awake and deliberate we are in our interactions with the world, the less likely we are to exhibit our Ennea-type.

It is the second model of the Enneagram, as a map of the individual mind, that the system is much more interesting and useful because it reminds us that while we can often be fixated on one aspect of our nature, there are other sides to us that we can nurture and develop to become more whole.

It is in seeing (and working with) both of these models of the Enneagram that the true power of the system is found. If we only focus on the superficial elements of typology we trap ourselves and devalue others, but if we don’t see the typological traps in which we become caught it becomes impossible to use the Enneagram as a map for development. The best map in the world won’t get you to your destination if you are not aware that you are stuck in the mud.


I find it helpful to think of the Enneagram as a problem-resolution protocol, a way of expediting solutions to common problems. When I call my cable company for help, I get an automated message that tells me it is sending a reset signal to my equipment before I even tell them what the problem is. They do this because they have learned that rebooting solves most problems and this is the most efficient way to address customers’ complaints.

If the reset signal does not work, they connect me to a technician who walks through a pre-ordered protocol of solutions based on their experiences of identifying the most common problems. If solution A doesn’t work they go to solution B, then to solutions C, D, E, etc. as needed. What they don’t do is randomly jump from B to F to L to C, because they want to solve my problem as quickly as possible and their collective experience has identified probabilities of failure occurrences in various components of their service. They have developed a protocol based on those probabilities and go through them from most-probable to least.

The Enneagram works the same way. Once I know that I am an Ennea-type Eight, if I start to experience friction in my life I can look at the issues associated with Point Eight on the model because that is where the most-likely solution is. If the solution is not found there, I can look at the points that connect to my Enneagram point via the inner lines of the diagram (Two and Five in my case). If I still have not found the solution, I can look elsewhere, but by following a protocol that has proved to be highly effective I increase my chances of finding solutions to my problem in the most effective manner.

The Enneagram is the most powerful tool I have encountered for creating personal growth and improving interpersonal relationships. But like anything with the power to transform—fire, electricity, gunpowder—we need to use it in a way that respects its power and understands its dangers. They key to using the Enneagram properly is to understand that the first mistake is to think you are your Ennea-type and become fixated on the superficial typology; the second mistake is to believe that you are not your Ennea-type and remain trapped in your fixations.