July 2014

Ways to Pay Attention


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The ways in which we pay attention to the world around us have an important impact on how we experience life. Some people, as they go about their daily lives, readily notice what is right or wrong in a situation. Some folks may frequently scan their environment for threats to their well-being. And some may habitually focus on what’s missing in their lives.

Understanding our own habits of paying attention can help us to better comprehend our own behavior. It can also help us to make wiser choices in the future. If we can increase our understanding of how others pay attention, we might be able to better comprehend the sometimes perplexing behavior of other people.

The Enneagram

A personality system called the Enneagram is a tool that can be used to aid in our understanding of the ways in which people pay attention. I first heard about this system back in 2000, and have found it to be a helpful tool over the years.

The Enneagram is a system of nine personality types. (The first part of the name, ennea, comes from the Greek word for “nine.” Also, the name of the system is pronounced “ANY-a-gram.”) It represents a synthesis of a number of wisdom traditions with modern-day psychology. The symbol associated with the Enneagram is a nine-pointed figure, and each of the points corresponds to one of the personality types. The types are referred to by number, such as Type One, Type Two, etc. While there are connections among the types based on the numbering—for example, Types One and Three are the “wings” of Two—the numbers do not indicate any kind of hierarchy; none of the types is inherently better or worse than any others.

Nine personality types

In addition to the numbers, those who study and teach the Enneagram usually assign a descriptive name to each type. The names that are used can vary. I’ll first present the names used by one of the best-known Enneagram teachers, Helen Palmer, along with a brief description of how the type pays attention. (Palmer has been studying and teaching the Enneagram for decades and appeared in a 2003 PBS special called Breaking Out of the Box: Discovering the Enneagram.) There are other characteristics that are associated with each type, but we’ll focus on “paying attention” here.

1. Perfectionist—notices what is right or wrong in a situation.
2. Giver—looks for ways to help other people.
3. Performer—focuses on ways to achieve.
4. Romantic—focuses on what is missing in one’s life.
5. Observer—focuses on accumulating knowledge and on privacy.
6. Loyal Skeptic—looks for threats to one’s well-being.
7. Epicure—focuses on keeping options open.
8. Protector—focuses on being strong and in control.
9. Mediator—looks at a situation from the points of views of others.

We each can have aspects of all nine personality types, but some research has indicated that a person will most identify with one type. You can figure out your type by reading detailed descriptions of the nine types and ascertaining which is the best fit. There are also tests available in books and online, just as there are other personality tests that are available, such as the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator tests.

The books that I’ve read about the Enneagram tend to focus on associating each person with one particular personality type. But when I’ve utilized the Enneagram to help understand myself and others I know, I have found it most useful to identify a primary type and to also identify one or two other types that seem to have explanatory power with regard to behavior. For example, an individual who is primarily a Performer may also happen to exhibit Perfectionist habits on a regular basis.

“Points of view”

The nine personality types can be viewed as nine “points of view.” Helen Palmer has used the phrase “habitual focus of attention” when describing how each personality type pays attention. It can be really eye-opening to “try on” different points of view and to realize that others can perceive the world in ways that are very different from your usual modes. For example, if you usually focus on your own perceptions of a situation, it can be surprising to realize that there are others who focus on gathering the points of view of others before deciding how to think about something or how to act.

So where do these points of view come from? As one might expect, they seem to develop during a person’s childhood. They’re apparently the product of how a child’s innate temperament interacts with the environment as the child grows up. For example, if a child with a sensitive temperament only feels loved when giving to others, a natural response may be to focus on looking for ways to help other people.

Potential and limitations

Although it can be beneficial to figure out how your own behavior and that of others can possibly be explained by assigning personality types, the idea is not to put a person “in a box.” That is, knowing a person’s type doesn’t mean you then know just how a person will always behave in a given situation.

The Enneagram can be viewed as a tool for expanding consciousness and awareness. It can be used to help oneself to become a more evolved version of one’s type.

Like any tool, the Enneagram has its limitations. All personality systems, including the introvert-extrovert spectrum and the Myers-Briggs system, have their limits—human behavior is very complex and any classification system is just going to deal with certain aspects of it.

Complexities of the Enneagram

The Enneagram itself has a number of complexities that would take too much time to explore in detail here. One is the concept of “wings” that was mentioned earlier; the two adjoining types are considered to be the wings of a type and considered to be influences on that type. In the example mentioned earlier, One and Three are the wings of Two. Often one of the wings is considered to be “dominant” in the sense of having more influence than the other wing.

Another complexity involves “stress points” and “security points.” For example, for Twos the stress point is considered to be Eight and the security point is considered to be Four. The idea is that, in times of stress, a Two (the Giver type) would tend to exhibit behavior associated with Type Eight (Protector) and in secure times, would tend to show behavior associated with Type Four (Romantic). These complexities indicate how the different types can be viewed as interconnected, but the system can be useful even without delving into them.

Enneagram and organizations

It’s interesting to note that various organizations have used the Enneagram in leadership training sessions, much as Myers-Briggs has been used in such sessions. There is research being done to examine the effectiveness of using the Enneagram in organizational settings.

Recommended reading

If you’re interested in finding out more about the Enneagram, two books I would recommend are a book by Helen Palmer, The Enneagram: Understanding Yourself and the Others in Your Life, and a book entitled, The Wisdom of the Enneagram: The Complete Guide to Psychological and Spiritual Growth for the Nine Personality Types, by Don Richard Riso and Russ Hudson. Both books were published in the 1990s, but they remain relevant now. Some of the terminology used has changed over time, and you can find the latest terms online. For more information pertaining to Palmer’s work, see the website at enneagramworldwide.com and for more information pertaining to the work of Riso and Hudson, see the website at enneagraminstitute.com; both sites provide quite a bit of in-depth information about the Enneagram free of charge (in addition to selling products such as books and personality tests).

Regarding the terminology of Riso and Hudson, their descriptive names for the types are different from Palmer’s. For comparison, their list is as follows: 1) Reformer, 2) Helper, 3) Achiever, 4) Individualist, 5) Investigator, 6) Loyalist, 7) Enthusiast, 8) Challenger and 9) Peacemaker. Most of the terms are similar in meaning to Palmer’s—Type 4 is probably where they seem the most different (Individualist versus Romantic).


For those of us interested in increasing our understanding of human behavior and in deepening our awareness about life and the universe, the Enneagram is a helpful tool to have in our analytical toolbox. It reminds us how the ways we pay attention to the world have a big effect on how we interact with the world. And the Enneagram can help us to put ourselves “in someone else’s shoes” and see what their perspective is. So, like some other personality systems, the Enneagram can be a tool that leads us to deeper understanding of ourselves and to more harmonious relationships with others.

-- By Mary Jablonski

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