Sep 18, 2023

How to Use the Enneagram to Respond Rather than React

“Oh, this isn’t good.”

The blinking dashboard, clicking sounds, and flickering headlights on my van signaled real trouble. As I pulled into the QuickTrip at dusk, I dreaded turning off the car because I just knew it wouldn’t start again.

So stuck in rural north Tennessee, 3 ½ hours from home with my 17-year-old daughter and a bad alternator, I had some choices to make. At this point, I’m doing ok. I’ve got a plan (Enneagram Sevens always have a plan!), and I’m feeling disappointed but confident.

My roadside assistance app showed the tow truck would arrive in 15-45 minutes. Wonderful! My saintly friend from Nashville is coming to get me, and we’ve got the van headed to a place that’s miraculously open on a Sunday.

The time on the app showed 12-36 minutes. 8-32 minutes. 17-45 minutes. 9-34 minutes. 15-39 minutes. My heart started to beat faster every time I checked the app. I kept messaging the company because nothing made sense. It’s been more than an hour. More than 90 minutes. My friends were now waiting, the dark had descended, and my options were more limited as I sat trapped in the QT parking lot. I was fidgeting, holding my breath, and my skin felt like it couldn’t hold me in.

And then, I remembered. This happens to me. I get all up in arms when there is a lack of logic or limited options. My Enneagram Seven personality is up in arms because it’s seeing pain as the only foreseeable future. 

When you sense a threat, your Enneagram personality activates and tries to take over, like Dwight driving the work bus.

What about you? Do you know what predictably toasts your cheese or pets your peeves?

Now, most of us would have some kind of response to my car troubles. Any situation can set off those activators in your personality and trigger denial, blame, deflection, aggression, and other defense mechanisms that prevent effective leadership and hinder healthy relationships. Over time, this breeds a reactive culture that springs from the worst parts of us.

And if you just try to change your behavior, it just comes out in some other unhealthy way because you’re not dealing with WHY your personality has started to take command, driving you places you really don’t want to go.

Can you see how understanding your Enneagram personality activators matters as a leader? When you recognize why your personality wants to take over, you can remain in command of the most complicated person you lead — yourself.

Here’s the two-step process:

1. Identify your Enneagram personality activators and notice when they’re happening.

2. Choose a different response.

I’m listing a few activators for each type and an option to make sure you (and not your personality) is driving the bus.


Outta-Control Activators

Indirect solutions and communications.

Surprises and manipulations.

Unaddressed injustices or irresponsibility.

In-Control Response

Don’t assume surprises are betrayals. Ask open questions and resist debate or dismissal.


Outta-Control Activators

Direct confrontations, especially without warning.

Feeling any break in harmony or relationships.

Feeling overlooked or unseen.

Pushed to hurry or decide.

In-Control Response

Rather than not decide, ask for time. Commit to making a choice and stating your perspective.


Outta-Control Activators

Feeling criticized or scrutinized

Deception, irresponsibility, or laziness

Lack of completing commitments 

In-Control Response

Ask open questions with curiosity instead of assumption or judgment.


Outta-Control Activators

Feeling taken for granted

Feeling rejected or unheard

The advice you’re giving is unappreciated

In-Control Response

Ask yourself, “What is mine to do?” and “What do I need right now?” before trying to solve for others.


Outta-Control Activators

Feeling embarrassed or losing face

Experiencing blame for someone else’s poor performance

Not getting validation or recognition for accomplishments

Getting stuck in a situation where failure is likely

In-Control Response

Remind yourself you are a human being, not a human doing — your worth is not at stake. Take the time for others’ emotions and practice patience when others move or achieve at a different pace.


Outta-Control Activators

Feeling your contributions or unique viewpoint isn’t valued 

Not seen as special or different or authentic to who they are. Just like everyone else.

Situations that stir up envy.

In-Control Response

Practice emotional processing and regulation so feelings move through and out rather than pull you into a different, hyped-up reality.


Outta-Control Activators

Feeling surprised or obligated.

Someone has broken a confidence, your privacy, or been dishonest.

Not having the space to be with yourself to process and recharge.

In-Control Response

Communicate your needs to others, including labeling your emotions, your need to recharge, and when you plan to reengage.


Outta-Control Activators

Experiencing blame or unfair accusations.

Someone questioning your genuine concern or desire to help.

Having your anxieties or concerns dismissed.

Lack of loyalty.

In-Control Response

Remind yourself you can make good decisions. And when you ask questions of others, remind them that you want to troubleshoot, not shoot down the idea. 


Outta-Control Activators

Feeling limited, dismissed, or not taken seriously.

Illogical negative emotions.

Unjust criticism.

Mundane, menial, repetitive tasks.

In-Control Response

Accept that not everything is always exciting, and choose to be present rather than reframe, dismiss, or escape.

When I clenched my fingers around the wheel and realized my personality was about to wreak havoc, I had command over my personality and then my behavior.

I took a few, or several, deep breaths. I talked to myself for a bit (yes, out loud, and yes, in the second person): “Jenn, everyone is safe. The tow is coming. Of course you’re frustrated, but you’re not trapped. This will end tonight. Sarah and Gina are happy to help you and Sabrina get back to Nashville. You know how to make things work when plans change.” 

Staying present calmed me. Meaning, I didn’t actually yell at anyone (including myself, my daughter, or the late but kind and helpful tow-truck driver.)

So…how about you? In your work with people, what gets you irritated and activated sending you into unhelpful behaviors?

Lean into your curiosity. Observe yourself nonjudgmentally. What could happen if you make a tiny change when your personality wants to turn you into something other than your best self? These questions cultivate the behaviors that lead to a positive, responsive culture.

Comment below and let me know: what’s the thing that’s going to get your personality grabbing the wheel? What helps you stay in charge?



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