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To Thine Own Self Be True

SFLA Review

The fatherly advice Polonius gives to Laertes does neither of them any good. By the time the tragedy wends its way to the final bloody scene father and son have both been on the receiving end of Hamlet’s rapier wit. Dead for a ducat. Ever since reading Hamlet in High School I have been wary of those preaching self awareness.

It was thus in a sceptical frame of mind that I agreed to participate in the Enneagram workshop put on for us by Gillian Bishop’s Education Committee at the National Conference in Liverpool. I assumed that it would be just another one of those personnel management training courses designed to teach us how to label, and thus efficiently control, others. I like to think that there is no such thing as personality types, that we are all individuals and that labels are misleading and sometimes dangerous.

I could feel the stony ediface of my resistance cracking within 5 minutes of entering the room. The 45 or so participants in the workshop were divided into 9 separate groups but, to my surprise, we had labelled ourselves. The self awareness training had already begun before the workshop commenced and I had not even noticed! This sleight of hand was accomplished by having participants read 9 personality type summaries beforehand and then deciding to which group they belonged.

One of the first things I noticed was that some of the groups were much larger than others. My group was relatively small. Was I that different to the others? And were those in my group really like me? I was hooked, and I had to find out more.

Our workshop leaders were Josephine Seccombe and Ann Binnie. We began with members of each group being asked to explain why they chose their particular personality category. Very soon it became clear that group members shared certain attributes and that there were significant differences between the groups. The Perfectionist group described themselves as work obsessive organisers. The Helpers said they need to be needed. The Mediator group said they were balancing and empathetic, but indecisive, personalities who avoided conflict. The Boss-Leaders saw everything in black and white, were wary and assertive and found it difficult to listen to others.

Listening to fellow family lawyers describe their innermost driving forces was fascinating but a little scary. Mostly I felt those I knew were describing themselves pretty accurately but I think some of us cheated a little. After all it is a brave man who will expose himself in public!

By the end of the first workshop I was determined to stay on for the second in the hope that I would learn the dark secrets of more of my SFLA colleagues. I was not disappointed. To my amazement the second workshop ran almost identically to the first. Once again, we had about 50 participants. Once again the Mediator and Boss-Leader groups were the biggest, each comprising some 9 or 10 members. Once again, there were hardly any Observer types (“thinker; sage; analyst”) or Questioners (“suspicious of authority; wary but loyal, especially in support of underdogs”).

The second workshop also repeated some of the behavioural patterns of the first. In group discussions, the Boss-Leader personalities all wanted to talk at the same time, even when other groups were trying to say something. Josephine and Ann were constantly telling them to quieten down and let the others talk. The Mediator group, in stark contrast, were often stuck for words. Nobody wanted to speak first. They would rather listen to someone else’s view before speaking.

The whole point of the Enneagram exercise became clear to me when the instructors asked us each to consider and discuss the question “how do I best communicate with you?”. Trying to explain to a group how they can best get what they want from you is a most frightening, yet empowering, experience. For me, the penny dropped at this stage: the purpose of self awareness is to enable others to understand you so that communication can take place more effectively.

I certainly learned something about myself but I also learned something about SFLA lawyers as a group. Compared to the general population, we are disproportionately Mediator and Boss-Leader personalities. There are also a few Perfectionists and Helpers among us, but few Questioners and Observers. Does this mean that certain personality types are drawn to law, to family law or to SFLA-type family law in particular? Perhaps someone should undertake a detailed research project.

The response to the workshops was enthusiastic. Josphine and Ann sold out of their supply of Enneagram books and I expect some family law departments will be running in house Enneagram workshops before long. Reading through my book afterwards I learned that the Enneagram idea has ancient mystic origins and was “rediscovered” in the 1920s by G I Gurdjieff whose ideas were later developed by Me Generation psychologists in California in the late 60s and early 70s. When I read this I realised why I had had a feeling of déjà vu in the workshop. I am old enough to remember the Happenings and Be-ins of the Hair generation of the 60s and I felt pangs of nostalgia for the lost innocence of that New Age. A dark voice inside urged me to cast off my lawyer’s suit and don kaftan and sandals. But I will resist these urges because I am, above all, a lawyer, albeit a more self aware one now.

If Hamlet could have attended an Enneagram workshop with Josephine and Ann I expect he would have learned to communicate more effectively with Polonius, Laertes and the others. This might have prevented misunderstandings developing into conflicts which were finally resolved, tragically and inevitably, by the death of the protagonists.

Maybe Polonius was right after all.

David Truex

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