Contributed photography / Shelley Prevost

Shelley Prevost established the Big Self School in 2020, with a focus on coaching and development for business teams and executives. An educational psychologist and licensed psychotherapist with over 10 years of experience working in startups and early-stage investing, Prevost blends mental health and leadership development strategies. A particular passion of Prevost's is the enneagram, a method of analyzing nine distinct personality types and the ways they interact.

"I think there's a lot of fascination around it," she says. "It's another tool in the tool box for us to help leaders, executives, employees understand the emotional landscape that people are really struggling to work through during this time."

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

You launched the Big Self School during the pandemic, in July 2020. How has it gone?

We're a personal and professional growth school. Right now, really because of who is reaching out to us, we're working with leaders, executives, entrepreneurs, people in business and organizational settings. We do work all along the mental health spectrum, everything from stress and burnout to growth, to help us function and work better as a team, help us communicate better. Over the last decade, there's been a real interest in the overlap between mental and emotional health and organizational function. The pandemic has really shined a light on what exactly we are talking about. The personal bleeds into the professional and vice versa. Our business really picked up in the last year as people are finally recognizing the need.

Where does the enneagram fit in?

I've just heard from a colleague that works with enneagram out West that enneagram is quickly becoming the No. 1 most widely used psychological tool inside business organizations. I think there's a lot of fascination around it. It's another tool in the tool box for us to help leaders, executives, employees really understand the emotional landscape that people are really struggling to work through during this time. I've been studying it and in school for it, and my husband, Chad — we have our coaching business together — he is now taking his first enneagram class.

What makes the enneagram different from other assessment tools we've all used to better understand ourselves and each other? Meyers-Briggs, Strengths Finder, etc.

The way that I got so turned on to it, and I see people gravitate to it, is that it's so much more sophisticated than just a typing tool. Knowing your type is the starting point, and a lot of personality assessments stop there. They are descriptive and not prescriptive in terms of what you do with that information. Enneagram is really powerful because there are so many layers to understanding personality structure. There's your type, wings, sub-types, levels of health and awareness — there are so many dimensions to it, so you can get what you need. You can get captivated by your own self-study and that's really attractive to people. What I love that I have not seen in any other system is the process map. You have a diagram and once you know your type, that sets you off on your journey. For example, I'm a 2 and my wings are 1 and 3. As a 2, I have really studied, and probably will my whole life, my type. What is the 2 type, what is my personality structure, my passions and fixations, and then if I want to grow and be the healthiest version of a type 2 I can be, in the diagram are my answers.

What are the benefits for work teams in particular of understanding their enneagram types, and their colleagues' types?

At the beginning of this inner journey, there's a lot we can do on our own by self-observation, self-study, reading books, listening to podcasts, journaling. But it only takes us so far. We reach a point in our development where we do need a community. My husband and I talk about this, and it was part of the impetus for starting the school, this idea of solitary work that cannot be done alone. We're launching these coaching groups starting this fall. I want people to witness each other and give each other feedback.

How does this look in a workplace?

Typically an organization will call me in and say, 'Hey, we want to train our team and use the enneagram.' I'll come in and do a half day or full day, take them through the whole system. There are lots of a-has in terms of 'Oh, that's why I do what I do,' and 'Oh, that's why you do what you do.' There's a whole level of empathy and communication, and that's great, and that may be all they want to do with it, and that's fine. Then I get people who follow up and want to do more than that. Then we get into the one-on-one work with a professional development plan that's a deep dive into the enneagram system. I give a lot of work, and I push people. Not everybody has to do that deep work, and I don't think they have to, but there are a lot of important applications in the business environment.

How so?

It's been crazy what level of new understanding and empathy have been created by just a few conversations. Things that always evaded us become clear, quickly. It's efficient. It's a shortcut to deeper understanding. I've been working with an organization since spring, we've had lots of good conversations, and there is an energetic shift happening in our meetings, a deeper level of empathy. It's one thing to cognitively discuss differences, and another thing when we start working with diagrams and start talking about strengths and weaknesses, conscious and less conscious elements. People just really start to wake up on a conscious level.

Do people feel comfortable doing this work with professional colleagues?

People kind of know what they're signing up for when they hire me. I may not be the right person for people who don't want to do this. There's a lot that's happening at this unconscious level that people don't know how to put a finger on, so there's an openness to exploring, and when I find resistance at all, it's kind of rare — they're usually already open and looking for help. We go through the process of typing, and I really want them to study their type and own it and they share what they're learned about their type and what this means. It's quite emotional for people to share what they've been unconscious to for so long. Then we have a lot of conversations about how this shows up at work — more of the relational conversations.

How has the enneagram changed the way you approach your work?

I never was big assessment person because I felt like there's so much more to a human or the human condition than we can possibly understand with a test. That said, learning the enneagram and learning the subtypes, to understand the nuances of how a person's personality get structured and how that trips them up, and what they're doing when they bring that work, I've not experienced anything like it.