How can the Enneagram help us deal with the most difficult people in our lives? It happens that I am currently in this situation and I have a few realizations about it to share—if only to remind myself of them when this inevitably happens again.

What is a difficult person? While this is a broad category and nearly impossible to define succinctly, we all know them when we come across them. The insight of the Enneagram shows a pattern in which they generally cluster around Level 6 on the Riso-Hudson Levels of Development. Tellingly, this Level is often euphemistically referred to as the “Level of the a-hole.”

My current situation happens to involve a type Two with a Three Wing co-worker at this Level. The classic traits of counter-productive over-interference, manipulation, narcissism, poorly disguised hostility, lack of self-awareness of their own motives and obsequiousness are all frustratingly and blindingly in evidence. Because this person is a co-worker, my default defense of limiting contact is unfortunately off the table which leaves me feeling powerless to control the effects of the behavior on my mood and ability to perform my job.

Being an Enneagram student, it’s very important to me to be able to see the humanity in this person beneath the infuriating behaviors, to have some compassion for how they got to be in this place to begin with. However, in the heat of the moment, that can be far easier said than done.

Twos in the healthy Levels are among the most supportive, warm-hearted and truly altruistic of the types. They honestly want the best for the people in their lives whether or not it benefits them in any way. They feel grateful simply for the opportunity to share in the lives of others and trust that love exists in abundance and they need no external affirmation that this is so. But being a rejection type, in the average Levels and below they assume they’ve already been rejected and denied the love of others. A large part of the egoic structure in the average Levels is to charm, seduce and wheedle their way back into what they feel is a state of grace. The lower down the Levels they go, the more validation they need from others to feel they’ve achieved that state of grace—and the more hostility comes into play when they don’t get it. While I know this and can see it in operation right in front of me, the behaviors from Level 6 are such that I can easily behave in such a way that exacerbates the situation.

That brings me to the point. The “power” of the Enneagram is solely in dealing with our own stuff. As powerful as the Enneagram is, the rules remain in place: we can’t change others and there is no magic bullet that will make us immune to the damaging behavior of difficult people. The Enneagram brings awareness and a deep understanding of the dynamics of the situation. We can see how this person got to where they are and how their behavior ignites our own unconscious patterns, thus allowing us to put the brakes on the normal chain of events and choose a different route.

Don’t allow what is asleep in the other to irritate what is asleep in you.
—Russ Hudson

What Russ means by this is that egoic behavior tends to create more egoic behavior unless acted upon by Presence. When we get into the heat of the moment with each other (as is inevitable among people in the average Levels and below), we feel attacked and lash out in our type’s characteristic patterns. Our lashing out is interpreted by the other as an attack and so they lash out in return. This escalates until either someone becomes conscious and chooses to take a step back or things come to an impasse of one kind or another. Another of his teachings is that in any relationship, it’s the job of the more conscious person to bring some Presence into the mix; always assume the more conscious person is you.

So, just like everything else about the Enneagram, there are no shortcuts. It gives us powerful insight and understanding, but in the end, it’s up to us to do the tough work of becoming radically Present and choosing life over the day-to-day dying of Ego.

We may desperately want the difficult people in our lives to experience some consequences, to get their come-uppance, to learn the same tough lessons we’ve had to learn. Why is it that it’s always our job to be the bigger person? In the end, we must recognize all of that is simply Ego’s manifestation within us in response to Ego manifesting in them. It’s the normal tit-for-tat routine that only serves to escalate egoic behavior.

All negative behavior is a result of unresolved pain.
—Don Riso

So one thing that can help us to bring the requisite Presence into the mix is to understand that all unconsciousness is suffering. And because the Levels of Development are essentially a measure of one’s ability to be conscious, we know that the “Level of the a-hole” must necessarily involve a large measure of misery and feeling lost. No one gets there because things are going great and we’re feeling loved by the Universe.

So, when someone comes at you with some Level 6, remember to breathe and feel your toes. Maybe that will be enough to stop the train of reactivity and maybe not. But the more we’re able to breathe some space into the situation, the more room we’ll have to exercise Presence and compassion.

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2 thoughts on “Dealing with Difficult People

  • April 19, 2014 at 1:32 pm

    Hey Richelle! Thought I would comment here rather than hijack the other thread from Enneagram 4 🙂 I rreallyyyyy love this! I think about this often.

    I always really DETEST when someone states, “Well, I had to be the bigger/better person and take the high road….” Um, how do they know whom is the “bigger person” whilst they are yet operating out of a place to make THAT.VERY.STATEMENT?

    I *just* had this experience, again, moments ago. I was in the car with my now ex-husband (after 22 years of marriage, 4 daughters, and him getting out of the hospital 2nd time this year for alcoholism). We we talking about several things as we had not talked in awhile, but the topic of his daughter sneaking her boyfriend up into her bedroom was the last topic, and he had no time and had to go (pre-engagement). But, we *were* able to discuss why I have not paid his mom money for a phone bill overage (that was not just mine), or why I have not fixed my spare laptop for him yet (which will cost another 200). Meanwhile, he has no child support for me for a few weeks due to his hospitalization and missed work. He ended with something like, “well, I guess when you decided to divorce me, you lost the help of your in-laws, me, etc.” I wanted to reel, and in fact began reeling. After a few minutes where we were both getting stressed (could feel tension and breath), I said, “You know what? You need to go…your friend is waiting and we are making you late.” We said bye but I walked into my apartment feeling victimized. I was gonna let it play out (maybe ruin my day-or heck even an hour-its still precious time!) Read this, and decided to text him,” Hey, I apologize for bringing all that up. You are right that I cannot expect others to be there to help me when I want them to. Sometimes I am getting better at this, some times I am just exhausted but either way not letting go of it isnt doing me any good, so I am sorry and hope your visit goes well.” What I liked today was that my answer has no “i-am-better-than-you-cause-i-apologized.” Im not. I became conscious of something, therefore it was MY duty to take care of it. I know that others sometimes do this for me, and the only way I EVER became more conscious at more levels was because SOMEONE acted toward me in a way out of their newly-gained consciousness. I mean, yes, some of what we learn is within us, but for me, others have often dawn that out of me. Even my ex-husband. So who I am to gloat, or act in my ego?

    • April 19, 2014 at 1:55 pm

      Hi Monica,

      I’m so glad this post was of help. Although it’s weird saying that because I don’t feel I have any claim to its content. Like you said, we owe a lot to those who’ve taught us, even the ones who caused suffering but ended up becoming our teachers. This post is really just a distillation of what I’ve picked up along the way.

      We do indeed stand on the shoulders of all who came before us, paved the way and made our own way easier. Many people have done this for me and I wasn’t in a place where I was capable of acknowledging them for it. It was only later that I realized I really should thank them. Unfortunately, I can’t track them all down. So, sometimes the best thing to do is pay it forward. We’re all in this together and sometimes the only “good” option we have is to choose not to continue replicating the suffering we’re all passing around like a virus.

      I think your experience expresses the Four’s ability to turn pain into something beautiful! Thanks for your insight and honesty. And for reminding me how we can learn from those who cause suffering, I wasn’t even thinking about that when writing this!



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