Kintsugi means ‘golden rejoining’ and is the 15th-century Japanese art of restoring ceramic pottery with seams of gold lacquer. It is also a philosophy: the essence of Kintsugi is understanding that breakage and mending are honest parts of a past which should not be hidden but celebrated - that the piece is more beautiful for being worn, broken or scarred. From the shards of the breakage can be forged something that is the same as the original object – a vase, a bowl – and yet completely different. Through Kintsugi’s alchemy, the essence of its beauty not only survives, it thrives.
“I think the real value of kintsugi is something else. Learning this process of making something whole again is good for your sanity. You see that life is hard. It takes work. And you see that what is broken can be even better than it was before.”
- Katsue Ito, Kintsugi Master
This is an attractive metaphor for coaching on many levels. It deals with change – sometimes quite dramatic change – yet within the context of the individual still being true to their essential self. The cup is not put back together to look like a bowl, it remains a cup. Unlike a simple glue, the gold that connects the separate pieces strengthens the whole: it is aware of and acknowledges where the fault lines lie and it reconnects to form something able to fulfill its full potential as a bowl but more resilient, unique and often more interesting.
The Kintsugi process, like the coaching process, can be a lengthy one. It can typically take six months to a year. Layer upon layer is applied, each layer adhering to the last; shape and strength building over time.
There are essentially four components to the Kintsugi process: Value, Awareness, Acceptance and Reconnection.
To undertake the painstaking process of Kintsugi demands a commitment to a notion of infinite worth, a belief that the piece is valued. The vision of what might result must be compelling, attractive and clear. It must outweigh any resistance to the outcome or to the effort, time and work involved. This is familiar to coaches in the form of Gleicher’s Formula for Change D*V*F > R at work (i). where D = dissatisfaction with how things are, V = a vision of what is possible, F = first steps towards this vision, and R = resistance.
Like Kintsugi, the coaching process is not simple; it takes patience, quiet and reflection. The non-directive coach will provide the forum for this; the opportunity and encouragement to take the time to analyse, reflect, distill.
“people are naturally creative, resourceful and whole”
- Henry Kimsey-House, Karen Kimsey-House (ii)
The coaching process demands an environment of care, support, encouragement and “unconditional positive regard” (iii). Carl Rogers identifies this and the withholding of judgement as threshold skills in the coaching process, reflecting his own faith in the ability of people to develop in a positive way. In undertaking the mending of the bowl; however many pieces are damaged, broken or even missing, the object is to be revered and accorded great respect. The process will take directions that may not be clear from the outset; one may even choose to jettison a piece in favour of replacement with gold or a piece from another vessel, but the belief in the value of the object is unwavering. The importance or value of the object is not diminished by the number or extent of its flaws or cracks.
“Coaching is unlocking people”s potential to maximize their own performance. It is helping them to learn rather than teaching them.”
- John Whitmore (iv)
Coaching puts the individual’s value and self-belief at the centre of the process. It rejects the view that people must be ‘fixed’ or ‘restored’ to something they were in the past. It looks forward; it does not seek to mask the repair or make restoration imperceptible.
If the premise of value is established and the conditions of regard, support and encouragement in place, the coach will turn his attention to building awareness. As with Kintsugi, the coaching process requires an understanding of the ‘pieces’ of the client – their shape, size and use, their position in the whole and their relation to each other.
“I am able to control only that which I am aware of. That which I am unaware of controls me. Awareness empowers me.“
- John Whitmore (iv)
Free of distraction, interruption or the clock, the Kintsugi master looks, the coach listens; both processes conducted at heightened levels of attention and focus; both processes rendered as free of judgement as possible. As Kimsey House noted, “There’s no better way to serve and nourish the magnificence in another person than to simply listen to them openheartedly and without judgment.” (ii).
Through incisive questioning and listening, clarity will emerge, awareness, acceptance and understanding will follow.
What are the stories the client tells, what comes first, what is said and what is not? The shape and texture, the choice of language, cadence, imagery all reveal something. How does context inform – what Adler termed “the social and community realm” - as well as the internal realm of the individual (v). How do the pieces fit together? Kintsugi masters choose their methods when they have a feel for the pieces, for what is there and what is not there. They seek to understand the gaps, sometimes using a high powered microscope to see the nuance and details of a crack.
As the relationship deepens, the coach builds awareness by increasing challenge – encouraging the client to see something from alternative perspectives.
“A coach is someone who tells you what you don’t want to hear, who has you see what you don’t want to see, so you can be who you have always known you could be” (vi)
The radical candour feedback gauge, created by coach Kim Scott (vii), uses a two by two matrix to examine how people experience challenge. It supports the notion that, within a coaching relationship characterised by support, encouragement and unwavering belief in the client, direct, challenging and difficult feedback will be well received. Absent these conditions, such challenge or feedback will likely be experienced as attacking, unnecessarily aggressive and undermining. Without some degree of challenge – holding up not only the mirror to the client but the microscope – support, encouragement and care may be experienced as ‘ruinous empathy’; perfectly pleasant in the moment but unlikely to lead to learning, change and development. The absence of both challenge and care is merely a form of insincerity and hence valueless.
Awareness is reached and the client is able to recognise perceptions, thoughts, feelings for what they are, to distinguish between fact and assumption and to understand how to work with and not against these cracks.
Acceptance, which comes next, is the primary pillar of ACT (acceptance and commitment therapy), a form of psychotherapy that uses acceptance and mindfulness strategies with commitment and behavior-change strategies, to increase psychological flexibility. The approach was originally called comprehensive distancing (viii) and was built out into its modern form in the late 1980s.
“We cannot change anything unless we accept it.”
- Carl Jung, Modern Man in Search of a Soul, 1933 (ix)
The coaching process can borrow much from ACT, the core message of which is to accept what is out of your personal control and commit to action that improves and enriches your life. Its objective is not the elimination of difficult feelings; rather, it is the tranquil acceptance of what life brings us and the acknowledgement of unpleasant thoughts and feelings as part of that. In her book of the same name, the coach Susan David terms the process of “holding those emotions and thoughts lightly, facing them courageously and compassionately and then moving past them as ‘Emotional Agility’ (x).
“The mind is its own place and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven”
- John Milton (xi)
Avoiding, eliminating or attempting to control unhelpful thoughts will only increase their strength. It is not a question of whether or not the thought or feeling is right or wrong, merely whether or not it is helpful in pursuit of the client’s goals. Once acceptance takes place, the struggle ends and clients are able to move forward.
This mental state is often known as mindfulness, a practice that has its roots in Buddhist teaching. One of the philosophy of Kintsugi’s essential practices is also to set aside self-defeating emotional conclusions - the ‘stories’ we’ve constructed about how impossible it is for us to recover from devastations, mistakes, betrayals and losses. The master artist can only engage in Kintsugi’s transformational process if they focus on what is possible rather than on what is impossible.
Practicing mindfulness has been shown to reduce stress and anxiety as well as improve connectivity inside the brain’s networks, creating improved focus and attention which in turn increases competence and aids flexibility and insight (xii).
In Kintsugi, there are three major methods of joining:
- Crack - the use of gold lacquer to attach broken pieces
- Piece Method - where a replacement ceramic fragment is not available and the entirety of the addition is gold
- Joint Call - where a similarly shaped but non-matching fragment is used to replace a missing piece from the original vessel
The coach’s medium of connection, their gold if you will, is incisive questioning. As Nancy Kline observed “the mind resists commands and responds to questions” (xiii). The mind opens and light shines in, enabling the client to see things more clearly.
“The wound is the place where the light enters you.”
- Jalaluddin Rumi (xiv)
In his book, “Seeing What Others Don’t: The Remarkable Ways We Gain Insights” (xv), Gary Klein examines how insights can take us beyond perfection, how they “can show us ways to improve on the original plan”.
His model acknowledges the importance of reducing errors – the heurisitcs and biases of ‘System 1 thinking’ (xvi); thinking errors, limiting assumptions (xvii) – but maintains that there is an additional ‘magic of insights’ that can be unleashed by noticing and making connections (as well as coincidence, curiosities, and contradictions).
The coach seeks to aid the client in reaching this magic and thereby move forward with greater confidence to achieve all they can be. As in Kintsugi, the vessel emerges. The same and yet enhanced; the value of its essential self retained and celebrated and the full beauty of the possible realized.
“We shall not cease from exploration and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”
- TS Eliot
(i)The Change Formula: Myth, legend, or lore, David Gleicher, 1963 and as simplified, Changing the way organizations change: A revolution of common sense, The Journal of Applied Behavioral Science, KD Dannemiller & RW Jacobs, 1992
(ii) Co-Active Coaching, Henry Kimsey-House, Karen Kimsey-House, 2011
(iii) Client Centred Therapy: Its Current Practice, Implications and Theory, Carl Rogers, 1951
(iv) Coaching for Performance: GROWing Human Potential and Purpose: The Principles and Practice of Coaching and Leadership, John Whitmore, 2009
(v) Understanding Human Nature, Alfred Adler, 1927
(vi) Tom Landry, NFL football coach
(vii) Radical Candor: Be a Kickass Boss Without Losing Your Humanity, Kim Scott March 2017
(viii) Begun in 1982 by Steven C. Hayes and tested by Robert Zettle in 1985. The Evolution of a Contextual Approach, 2005
(ix) Modern Man in Search of a Soul, Carl Jung, 1933
(x) Emotional Agility, Susan David, 2016
(xi) Paradise Lost, John Milton, 1667
(xii) The Effect of Mindfulness Based Therapy on Anxiety and Depression: A Meta-Analystic Review, a review of 39 separate studies, Stefan G. Hoffman et al, 2010
(xiii) Time to Think: Listening to Ignite the Human Mind, Nancy Kline, 2011
(xiv) Jalaluddin Rumi, the 13th Century Persian poet and theologian
(xv) Seeing What Others Don’t, Gary Klein, 2013
(xvi) Thinking, Fast and Slow, (2011) Kahneman
(xvii) Little Gidding. T.S.Eliot, 1942