Embrace Wabi-Sabi: how the psychology of imperfection can enhance our coaching practice


It feels like an oxymoron: “embrace imperfection and your coaching practice will be better”.

Imagine you are preparing for coaching, and you say to yourself “I must be the perfect coach.” How would that set you up for the session? 

Preparing well for a coaching session has many benefits.  These include being truly present, having access to resources that you need or reminding yourself of previous themes and topics that are important. However, during preparation, if your expectation is that every session must be perfect you may be setting an unachievable goal.  How then should you respond when you don’t meet that unachievable goal? 

The answer may lie in preparing in a different way and responding differently to moments of imperfection. That different way could be the “Wabi-Sabi” way.

What is Wabi-Sabi?

Wabi-Sabi is a Japanese concept that can be understood as appreciating the beauty in imperfection. There are many ways to bring this to life: the imperfection in art, in pottery (sometimes called Kintsugi – an example is shown in the picture), in architecture, in relationships, in weather and, in this case coaching conversations. 

Picture:  A kintsugi bowl.  A type of Wabi-Sabi where a bowl is repaired and regarded as more beautiful because of its uniqueness. Source:  Unsplash:  Motoki Tonn

There is an old fable which illustrates the concept and its origins.

In the sixteenth century a young Zen monk (Sen no Rikyu) was tasked by his master to take care of a garden in Japan. He raked, swept, brushed and trimmed it until it was perfect. And then, just before showing it to his master, he shook a cherry tree and let some of the blossom fall to the ground. The garden was no longer perfectly manicured.  And at the same time it was more pleasant to be in. 

How can this help with coaching?

The concept of Wabi-Sabi can help us to respond, rather than react, to the reality and the realness of our coaching sessions.  It can help us embrace and appreciate the whole session (the good, the bad and the “other”). 

If we can appreciate the whole session just as it is, it may reduce some of our self-judgements and self-talk. If we are too busy telling ourselves that the session is not going well, we may be missing what is happening in the moment. 

What Wabi-Sabi may be able to do is help us access a mindset that means our coaching is valuable despite — and because of — our imperfections.

If we work though an example… (and “maybe” this is based on a personal experience)

Imagine a coaching session where the coach asked a question that was clumsy. The coachee was experienced and knew it was not a great question and couldn’t hide an expression of judgement with what seemed like tinges of contempt.

In that moment the coach was aware that the question was not up to the quality or impact that they had hoped for.  It fell short of their normal quality. How the coach responded in that moment could have had a lasting impact on the session. The coach focussed on having an open appreciation that the question was not helpful but it was a part of the session. It was important just as it was, without wishing it different. And from that non-judgemental mindset the coach was able to fully notice that the coachee appeared judgemental.

Imagine then, that from this space, the coach was able to share that he felt judged – that the coachee appeared to show contempt for something he was expecting to be higher quality. And that in turn led the coachee to share that he has a reputation of upsetting colleagues who don’t meet his high standards but that he is never sure why they know he is upset. The coach and the coachee were then able to work towards resolving that very conundrum for the coachee. 

That moment was made available by being open to, and unphased by, what some may regard as imperfect coaching.

Benefits to those we work with

If we can embrace Wabi-Sabi as coaches there can be further benefits to those we work with:   

  • Where our coachees may be expecting flawless performance at all times we can create a space where they can explore if that is even possible. We can enable an appreciation that perfection at all times is unrealistic. 
  • Where we role model that we can be content and appreciate ourselves, including our imperfections, inviting our coachees to do the same.
  • Where our work can highlight that striving for perfection can drive success and yet, like any strength taken too far, it can be a hindrance. If our coachees are only looking for perfection, they may be unable to see the reality in front of them.  

Does this mean being okay with mediocrity?

Embracing Wabi-Sabi does not mean settling for mediocrity in your coaching. It is an approach that examines the whole session and finds appreciation for the “wobbly bits.” We can still have high standards and aim for great coaching. But we can appreciate the sessions that are not perfect in the same way we may appreciate the ancient Japanese bowl that has been broken and mended. It is perhaps more interesting and has more character — or perhaps we value how unique it now is.

“Be present not perfect”

A modern interpretation of a similar concept as Wabi-Sabi is the encouragement to be present not perfect in a conversation.  Building on this we could describe Wabi-Sabi for coaches as an encouragement to be present, non-judgemental, self-compassionate and fully aware.   

Wabi-Sabi may be a new phrase to coaching, but the ancient concept could bring a fresh and helpful perspective to improve our practice.

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