Effective Coaching Using the Enneagram and Metaphorical Language

By Eric Alpin


            The Enneagram is a powerful psychometric assessment that can shed light on the core beliefs which influence an individual’s view of the world around them. It is a great resource for understanding how perspectives, motivations, and patterns can take shape in someone’s life and impact who they are (Cron, 2021). The Enneagram is a widely-used assessment in coaching because it helps the coach understand the client on a deeper level and gives into thought patterns, potential limiting beliefs, and internal conflict. However, just like any other assessment, one could use their Enneagram style as a means to validate behavior, saying “I’ve always done it this way” or “this is how I’m wired.” This approach to the Enneagram only perpetuates limited beliefs, causing circular thinking and actions; it does not foster growth or progress (Thomson, 2009). How does a coach reframe this thinking in order to help the client step into their full potential?

            In his article “Enneagram Styles, Coaching, and the Use of Metaphor,” Clarence Thomson (2009) takes a different perspective on using the Enneagram in coaching. The author suggests using symbolism and metaphor to understand a client’s Enneagram style and to help the client break the cycle of limiting beliefs. This paper will summarize the article’s main points and suggestions. Next, it will detail how Thomson’s point of view lines up with other Enneagram style interpretations and how the author’s insight could be helpful for understanding the Enneagram. Finally, it will explain the benefits of using metaphors in coaching and how metaphorical language should be a tool in every coach’s toolbox.

Article Summary

            Thomson’s (2009) article, “Enneagram Style, Coaching, and the Use of Metaphor,” can be divided into three main sections: a high-level review of how Enneagram styles are often interpreted contrasted with the author’s perspective, a suggested approach for determining a client’s Enneagram style, and finally, examples showing the benefits of using metaphorical language to interrupt the Enneagram “habitual trance”. To begin the article, Thomson (2009) suggests that we do not live in a world based on logic. Instead, we all live in an imaginary world that we construct in our minds. With that line of thinking, he states that our Enneagram style (the way we view and interact with the world around us) is based in symbolism; it is a trance, “a temporary but habitual focus on inward realities,” that affects the way we interpret the world we have constructed. As coaches, we have the ability to disrupt the habitual trance a client may be experiencing and help them change directions.

            To interrupt the client’s patterns, we must first determine their Enneagram style. Since each style has unique characteristics, stress points, and growth opportunities, there cannot be one concrete plan of action to interfere with the Enneagram trance. Thomson (2009) suggests honing in on the client’s symbolic actions and attitudes to help determine their Enneagram style. This is not an easy task; it is an art that is not rooted in book knowledge about the Enneagram but, instead, is based on interpreting the client’s core motivations and beliefs through their words, actions, and symbolism. When a client uses metaphors to describe their inner world, they are offering up “a rich blend of conceptual, physical, and emotional information” that can be used to help determine their Enneagram style. The author encapsulates it well: “A coach must integrate the conviction that everything the client does makes sense from the perspective of the client’s internal world. If it doesn’t make sense on a superficial level, it may reveal the Enneagram level” (Thomson, 2009, p. 142). Also, Thomson provides 12 symbolic questions (see Appendix) a coach can ask the client, which, when answered thoroughly, may help reveal their Enneagram style. While there are some tests to discover Enneagram style, symbolic questioning tends to elicit more emotional and subconscious responses.

            Finally, Thomson (2009) uses personal examples to discuss why a coach should use metaphors to lift the client out of their Enneagram trance. Metaphoric behaviors and altered metaphoric understandings of current behavior are great ways to disrupt the inner fear that lies at the heart of every Enneagram style. These methods work to reframe the core fear using emotional and conceptual information, while still leaving the foundation of their Enneagram style intact. Thomson (2009) states, “You can mend the structure of the original experience if you re-structure its metaphoric expression…The symbolic intervention of the coach has to be isomorphic, that is, it has to have the same functional structure as the problem” (p. 144). If it is not structured similarly, there is a lesser chance of it connecting with the client on a deeper level because it will not seem relevant. Also, working with the client to create a symbolic change will do wonders to interrupt the Enneagram trance they are living in. According to Thomson (2009), “A small change, if it is symbolic and if it interrupts a symbolic pattern, will be much more effective than resolutions, programs, or external motivators” (p. 146).

Article Analysis

            The article “Enneagram Styles, Coaching, and the Use of Metaphor” by Clarence Thomson (2009) should be considered insightful and thought-provoking to a coach or anyone familiar with the Enneagram. While it does not contain any ground breaking information or research, Thomson takes information on two seemingly separate topics (the Enneagram and metaphors) and joins them together, offering a new perspective to the reader. This fresh perspective allows coaches and Enneagram enthusiasts to further expand their knowledge of symbolism and how it can be applied to coaching or self-development.

            One of the most significant points of view offered by Thomson (2009) in the article is his explanation of Enneagram styles as a habitual trance. This line of thinking is counter to other approaches of Enneagram styles, as most people view them as a tool to understand our behaviors (Cron, 2021) or the world and people around us (Your Enneagram Coach, 2021). Thomson’s explanation of Enneagram styles as trances is well supported by research and personal examples from his own coaching, and is a connection that most people in helper professions can embrace. Even though he views the Enneagram in a different manner than most, Thomson (2009) does not dismiss the way others use the tool; he simply suggests another helpful angle for growth through the Enneagram. Any coach or Enneagram practitioner would be wise to consider the author’s view on the Enneagram, as it could lead to a deeper awareness of self.

Thomson (2009) also addresses a common method for growth through the Enneagram: talking it out. While talking may be beneficial in the moment because it gives us new information, it does not always lead to direct change. In order to have growth, there needs to be a qualitative shift in perspective (Berger, 2006) that occurs through “critical reflection, self-examination, and… reorientation” (Cox, 2006). Symbolism and metaphorical language that reorient the Enneagram style’s core fear can spur on this shift in thought process and lead to true change (Thomson, 2009). The author’s views of an Enneagram style trance and the limitations of “talking it out” are refreshing and helpful to anyone using the Enneagram.

            Finally, Thomson’s (2009) position on the use of metaphorical language in coaching is enlightening and helpful. In his article, he states that metaphors combine conceptual, physical, and emotional information to connect on a deeper level with the client. The author compares them to compressed computer files—small bits of information that unravel to something more. As coaches, we take great care to be mindful of our words and questions, striving to keep them efficient, focused, and powerful. Adding metaphorical language to our repertoire as coaches fits in with our commitment to direct communication and powerful questioning. It is a tool that coaches of all levels can use to further engage and challenge clients.


            Thomson’s (2009) article “Enneagram Styles, Coaching, and the Use of Metaphor” is a well-written and detailed approach to Enneagram styles and shows how a coach can connect with a client on a deeper level through symbolism and metaphors. The author’s comparison of Enneagram style to a habitual trance is insightful and provides a new perspective to understanding the tool, both for coaches and Enneagram enthusiasts. As someone with detailed knowledge of the Enneagram, it was refreshing to read how Thomson (2009) views Enneagram styles and the potential downfalls of common methods of self-discovery. The author’s succinct examples of applying symbolic and metaphorical language to coaching sessions were helpful; without them it might have been difficult to fully conceptualize his thoughts. Overall, “Enneagram Styles, Coaching, and the Use of Metaphor” (Thomson, 2009) is an article that anyone using the Enneagram should read, as it is challenging and helpful in facilitating true growth through the Enneagram.


Berger J. (2006). Adult development theory and executive coaching practice. In D. Stober & A. Grant (Eds.), Evidence based coaching handbook (pp. 77-102). John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Cox, E. (2006). An adult learning approach to coaching. In D. Stober & A. Grant (Eds.), Evidence based coaching handbook (pp. 193-217). John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Cron, I. M. (2021). Manifesto. Ian Morgan Cron. Retrieved March 25, 2021, from https://ianmorgancron.com/about/

Thomson, C. (2009). Enneagram styles, coaching, and the use of metaphor. The Enneagram Journal, 2(1), 138-148. https://go.openathens.net/redirector/lewisu.edu?url=https://www.proquest.com/scholarly-journals/enneagram-styles-coaching-use-metaphor/docview/205939120/se-2?accountid=12073

Your Enneagram Coach. (2021). Learn more about all 9 Enneagram types. Your Enneagram Coach. Retrieved March 27, 2021, from https://www.yourenneagramcoach.com/types


Symbolic Questions to Reveal Enneagram Style

1. If you were a room in the house, which one would you be?

2. I’m writing your biography. What shall I title it?

3. If you were to have a tombstone, what would you like engraved on it?

4. Describe your perfect job.

5. Describe your “job from hell.”

6. If you were an animal, what kind would you be?

7. You have a full free day. Ideally, how would you spend it?

8. What do you voluntarily do that you consider a waste of time?

9. What is your pet peeve?

10. If you could change one thing about your personality, what would it be?

11. Is there anything you voluntarily do too much of?

12. Describe everything about your perfect meal.

13. If you were given an unfair request, by someone important to you (boss, customer, spouse) how would you handle it?

(Thomson, 2009, p. 141)

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