Sixes and Relationships

Sixes came out of childhood believing it’s not ok to trust. The object of their mistrust depends on the Six. Self-preserving sixes place their trust in others but doubt themselves. Social sixes trust ideas and abstract concepts, but doubt both themselves and others. Sexual sixes place trust in themselves, but angrily distrust all else.[1] Use these categories to listen for the unique nature of a six’s source of tenuous security and their pervasive anxiety.

Listening for fear is no small task, with many potential roadblocks both on your part and on the side of the six. On your end, you will have to find some level of comfort with your own fears in order to be a non-anxious presence for a fearful six.[2]. Naming your own fear will allow you to be vulnerable and share you fears with sixes. This vulnerability will pave the way for sixes to share their fears with you.

Many sixes share their fears or casually allude to their fears, but we misunderstand and underestimate the depth of what may be offered to us a casual “concern.” If you remain open and give the six space to share, you might learn of the seriousness of their anxiety. Unfortunately, most people don’t intentionally listen for anxiety in the tone, vocabulary and physicality of others. Instead, we unconsciously ignore and dismiss anxiety because it strikes the chord of our own subconscious fear.

Being an intentional listener is something of a cliché, often preached, but rarely does anyone take the serious steps necessary to develop this as a personal skill and habit. If you want to be a life-giving presence for not only sixes, but any anxious person (which is all of us at one time or another) you will have to process you own fear and honor the fears of others, holding fear gently instead of sweeping it away.

As a fearful five, I know of our culture’s tendency to contradict and ignore fear from personal experience. In the months leading up to fatherhood I was plagued by terrible anxiety around being a new dad. I naively thought the healthiest way to work through this fear would be to speak openly about my anxiety when others asked me about my thoughts and feelings around having my first child. I would respond by sharing my fear. I would say something like, “You know I have some concerns. It’s a going to be a big change in my life.” Without exception, the response would come back with some version of, “Yeah, but parenthood is so great. Let me give you some advice.” The first part of this response only succeeded in dismissing my feeling, which only served to frustrate, isolate and exacerbate my fears.

As for the advice offered, I would add: don’t waste your advice on an anxious person.[3] Until fear is named, encountered, processed and at least partially dispersed, fear clouds rational thinking, making even the best advice in the world tone deaf to suffering and ultimately unhelpful. In other words, don’t try to reason with anxiety. Instead, listen, look them in the eye and calmly acknowledge their emotions, saying, “You sound really concerned.”[4] Take a deep breath and leave silence for the six to be present to their fear. Most likely, they will be taken aback that someone listened and held space their anxious thoughts rather than contradicting them or sweeping them away. Remember, contradicting anxious thoughts will sound reckless to sixes, who think their suspicion keeps them safe.

If you don’t have time or it’s not the right space for a conversation like the one outlined above, consider asking a simple question to invite a six to reflect critically on their fear. If they tell you the worst that will happen, ask them, “Do you really think that will happen?” They might tell you yes, but most likely they will pause and their eyes will turn up. This is a sign that higher functioning cognition is happening, and they will say something like, “Well, I guess not,” and their anxiety will stand down. Anxiety clouds productive thinking; at times we all need friends to ask us questions and help us think critically.

Listening for fear could also be difficult depending on the manifestation of fear on the part of the six. Sexual sixes appear angry, rather than fearful, making it counterintuitive to see them as fearful. Sexual sixes often mistype as eights, but if you listen closely to an eight you can hear the passion in their voice. This is notably different than the aggressive anger of the counter-phobic six. Also, eights will join you and help you execute a good idea if it accomplishes a shared goal, while sexual sixes will stall or object to good ideas out of their default stance as contrarian thinkers. Look for these differences and listen for the fear hiding behind the aggression. Respond gently to it, knowing the anger comes from a place of deep fear.

Our culture not only painfully ignores fear but also dismisses the six’s gift as well. Sixes possess a deep loyalty, which goes above and beyond what little loyalty we demand in our individualistic culture. This means we take loyalty for granted and fail to appreciate the quiet brilliance of showing up early, staying late and continuing to serve groups or organizations when they go through the painful changes all institutions experience. To demonstrate the point further, my wife and I recently made the choice to purchase a house next to two close friends. We are excited to live in close proximity to people we appreciate. Our culture would forgive any us if one of chose to abandon the community in order to relocate for a better job, but imagine what kind of communities we might have if we were the kind of people who took the well-being of family, friends and neighbors into account when making life’s decisions. The power of loyalty is tragically underestimated and underappreciated. Consider for a moment how you might have been influenced by our cultural neglect for loyalty and consider how you might show your appreciation for sixes’s radical loyalty.

Perhaps nurturing your own commitment toward the six you love is the most powerful way to show your appreciation for their loyalty, so look for opportunities to show your loyalty. One opportunity may come when many sixes hold tightly to deep beliefs. Somewhere along the line you might disagree sharply with them. Talk about your differences and how you love still them. If you fight with a six tell, them that you want resolution, how you don’t want the conflict to go on forever, and that you aren’t going away. Remember most sixes think in terms of worst-case scenarios, and that can include the fate of your relationship in conflict.

Be stable, direct and clear in your relationships with sixes. You can be kind to a six by being steady when they are overreacting. They need steady, peaceful people who can absorb their anxiety and respond in peace. However, if their anxiety is difficult for you, share this with them in a kind but direct manner. If you make an agreement with a six, you need to keep it. Sixes need you to hold to agreements because anything less will be perceived as a dangerous and anxiety-producing act of irresponsibility.

Encourage a six to stop thinking and take action when appropriate. A six will think through scenarios and possible responses for a long time to the point where a response is no longer possible. Even as a five, I remember being a young professional, so afraid of looking foolish or saying something inappropriate in meetings that I would think through what each person at the table might think of my comment or question based on their values and political positions within the organization. Needless to say, by the time I was finished running the scenarios on the twenty plus people in attendance, the time for my input had long past. You can save a six from this self-inflicted intellectual torture by giving them space to process their fears, which will allow them to think productively.

[1]Beatrice Chestnut’s work The Complete Enneagram has helped me see just how radically different these three kinds of sixes are from each other, making it increasingly difficult to speak of sixes with the kind of sweeping generalizations found in so much Enneagram literature. If you love a six, take a look at her work on this.

[2]This is one more example illustrating the truth that working on yourself is the best way to help others. We have to watch our motivation to use the Enneagram to help others. This seemingly altruistic motivation is a clever smokescreen for avoiding our own difficult work.

[3]Almost everyone is anxious at times, so withholding advice is a good general rule. This is especially true for self-preservation and social sixes who need to trust their own guidance and instincts rather than look to others (self- pres strategy) or abstract ideas (social strategy) for direction and shelter from fear.

[4]If you feel comfortable, use “afraid” instead “concerned.” This is a more vulnerable observation, but fear stands down when it is named and exposed for exactly what it is. We all tend to soft pedal our emotions, not wanting to appear dramatic or emotionally needy. This strategy does not serve us well in our work to process feelings.