When Push Comes to Shove

Conflict is a fact of life in general, and relationships—whether with family, friends, partners, co-workers, or neighbors—are definitely a part of life. In any relationship, there are times when things don’t go according to plan. Or they may go according to one person’s plan but not the other person’s. We famously can’t always get what we want. So how do we cope when conflict inevitably arises and things don’t go our way?

In The Wisdom of The Enneagram, Don Richard Riso and Russ Hudson describe what they refer to as three Harmonic Groups, which organize the nine types according to their coping styles.

[T]he Harmonic Groups tell us how we cope with conflict and difficulty: how we respond when we do not get what we want. … [T]hey reveal the fundamental way that our personality defends against loss and disappointment.

–The Wisdom of the Enneagram

The Competency Group
Types 1, 3, and 5 

This group deals with conflict or difficulty by putting aside their own feelings and needs and attempting to solve problems logically and objectively. Each of the three types in the Competency group has a particular attitude toward playing by the rules.

  • 1s naturally tend to play by the rules, and they expect others to do so, too.
  • 3s will play by the rules if that works for them, but they’re willing to bend the rules in order to meet their goals or objectives.
  • 5s aren’t interested in following rules. They don’t like being a part of the system, so they prefer to do things their own way.

The Positive Outlook Group
Types 2, 7, and 9 

This group deals with conflict or difficulty by putting on a pair of rose-colored glasses and thinking positively to reframe disappointment. Each of the three types in the Positive Outlook group has difficulty giving equal attention to both their needs and the needs of others.

  • 2s tend to recognize the needs of others and are happy to roll up their sleeves to tackle others’ problems while pushing their own into the background.
  • 7s tend to be more focused on their own needs and often fail to notice the needs (and problems) of others.
  • 9s try to pay attention to others’ needs, as well as their own, and as a result, they often become overwhelmed, so they tend to tune out instead of responding to either.

The Reactive Group
Types 4, 6, and 8 

This group deals with conflict or difficulty by reacting emotionally, and they expect an emotional response in return so they can know where others stand. Each of the three types in the Reactive Group has issues around trusting other people.

  • 4s tend to feel like they’re on the outside to begin with and are very sensitive to slights and perceived slights (lack of support). They are easily hurt.
  • 6s want to be seen as strong and reliable, but at the same time, they want to feel supported by others. They can get defensive.
  • 8s are comfortable in the supportive role, but they don’t want to need other people, so they keep their guard up to prevent others from getting too close. They are easily angered.

Coping with Coping Styles

I’ve found the concept of the Harmonic Groups to be extremely valuable. It’s relatively easy to grasp and provides a lot of insight into interpersonal conflicts. It helps to know what your own tendency is and then to try to understand the other person’s. I was the only Reactive type in my family. Both parents were Positive Outlook types—the coping style I have the most difficulty with—as was one brother. My other brother was a Competency type. The idea of Harmonic Groups explains a great deal about the different relationships within my family. I wish I’d known about it when I was growing up.

No coping style is better than the others, and none is effective in all conflict situations. It would be nice to have the full repertoire to choose from each time a conflict rears its head. But our coping style arises from various aspects of our basic type, and just as our type won’t change over time, neither will our fallback response to conflict. By paying attention to that response, however, we can gain at least a little distance from it. We can learn to be less at the effect of it. We can have an awake moment instead of continuing to cruise along on autopilot.


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