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Pottery and the Art of Coaching

All this of Pot and Potter—Tell me then, Who is the Potter, pray, and who the Pot?

- Omar Khayyam

My journey with pottery started a year back, just when Covid had started. Building on a pottery wheel for the first time was both a disappointing as well as a stimulating experience for me. Wedging the clay, throwing it on the wheel, making sure it sticks perfectly. Then centering the entire clay, coning, applying the right pressure to open, making sure it has enough water to reduce friction, and finally pulling the clay into a shape, all the while the wheel is rotating anti-clockwise. Sounds doable, right?

My first piece was a disaster. Upset, I went home and watched multiple YouTube videos and tried to emulate them. Eventually, I did manage to make something but not what I was proud of. I couldn’t figure out what I was doing wrong.

While pottery has been a yearlong endeavour, I just started coaching 2 months ago. Like pottery, the experience elicited similar feelings of frustration and exhilaration. I was excited by making a start in my coaching journey, yet disappointed by how I was totally lost in my first session. My second session was somehow even worse, because while I did manage to listen and ask questions, I ended up mentoring instead and had missed out on one of the most important ICF competencies by pushing my own solution to the problem instead of believing in my client.

Disheartened by my lack of success in both fields, I knew I had to take the time to sit down and reflect on what I was doing wrong. Even then, my efforts were to no avail. My mind was unable to settle on a single conclusion, too distracted between the two arts. It was only when I viewed them together and made the connection that I managed to figure it out.

First, some context. ICF[1] defines coaching as partnering with clients in a thought-provoking and creative process that inspires them to maximize their personal and professional potential. The process of coaching often unlocks previously untapped sources of imagination, productivity and leadership.

In pottery, it is important to first lay a strong foundation. Making anything on the wheel starts with being sensitive to the texture of the clay.

My Pottery teacher used to tell me, Feel the clay. Be one with the clay. Hear what it is telling you. Give it shape, but don’t force it to be something it doesn’t want to be.

Before you sit on the wheel, clear your mind of all thoughts— positive or negative. Pottery is meditative. You must let go and surrender to the unpredictability of it all.

Go with the flow.. the clay may take you in a different direction than planned.

Work with the clay - not against it.

Breath and slow the frenzied mind.

It is important to remain centered, even when everything around is spinning. You don’t centre the clay, the clay centres you!

Patience. It can’t be rushed. If you try going faster than your wheel, the clay starts getting off balance, it will twist and may tear and fall off.

Be in tune with the clay and react to what state it is in, to work with it.

Mindfulness . . . Being present in the moment and focusing on the clay.

Looking back now, the similarities between pottery and coaching are evident.

In coaching, it is very important to establish trust with the client. The journey is a partnership between the coach and the client.

You need to trust the coaching process to work with the client. You cannot go with your own agenda, expectations, and solutions. You must let go of the need to “help” your client.

Be completely comfortable in the space of not knowing. You must leave your thoughts behind.

If you are thinking, you are not listening.

The client sets the pace, you cannot rush, dancing in the moment. You need to be fully present and follow the direction and flow of the conversation, noticing changes in emotions and creating awareness within both the coach and client at every moment.

Every session with a client is a learning process for the coach, the learning never stop

The wound is a place where the light enters you - Rumi

Another learning from pottery that I could relate to in coaching is Kintsugi. Kintsugi[2] is the ancient Japanese art of repairing broken pottery by cementing the areas of breakage with gold. The shards of a broken bowl are melded together to become a bowl again, it is not put together to make another shape. All that is new is the glue that holds them together. The gold that connects the separate pieces strengthens the whole— it acknowledges where the fault lines lie and reconnects to form something able to fulfill its full potential as a bowl again. However, this time it is more resilient, more unique, and more interesting.

As a philosophy, Kintsugi treats breakage and repair as part of the history of an object, rather than something to disguise. It deals with change— sometimes quite dramatic change— but doesn’t dismiss the importance of being true to your essential self.

This also serves as a powerful metaphor in coaching. Accepting imperfections helps us to free from the obsession with perfectionism which causes unnecessary stress, inhibiting creativity and productivity. All we need to do is identify the areas where it can be effectively applied.

Coaching, like pottery, is a journey, a process of constant learning, one appealing to my heart, the other to my soul.



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