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Kintsugi and the Art of Mending Relationship Conflict

Artist Teresita Fernández was visiting the Metropolitan Museum of Art when her attention was caught by a broken piece of Greek pottery from 487 BC. Known as an ostracon, this piece of discarded pottery got a second life in Greek society for use in voting. Greek citizens would choose a piece of broken pottery from a pile, write their candidate choice on it, and literally cast their vote by throwing it in a pile to be counted later.

While we are conditioned to think of something broken as less valuable, here before Fernández was an exquisite example of something broken that had transformed into something valuable — without hiding the damage.

There is a mending tradition in Japan, called kintsugi, that embraces this idea. Kintsugi, which means “to patch with gold,” is the art of mending broken pottery not by treating the break as something to hide, but as something to revere as part of the object’s history. Said Fernández about this tradition,

Often, we try to repair broken things in such a way as to conceal the repair and make it “good as new.” But the tea masters understood that by repairing the broken bowl with the distinct beauty of radiant gold, they could create an alternative to “good as new” and instead employ a “better than new” aesthetic. They understood that a conspicuous, artful repair actually adds value. Because after mending, the bowl’s unique fault lines were transformed into little rivers of gold that post-repair were even more special because the bowl could then resemble nothing but itself.

When the fault lines of conflict show up in a personal, professional, or business relationship, we have this idea that resolution must somehow make things as good as new. Sometimes we even demand that the other make us whole again.

But there is no cure that erases the remnants of damage done. Traces of our pain, of the distrust that gnawed our souls, of fear of what would happen — those traces live in the recesses of our minds, a trickle of unease that haunts us when we try to glue the fault lines back together and make it appear they never happened.

When we’re sorting out relationship conflict at home and work, let us instead transform that trickle of unease into a trickle of radiant gold by revering, perhaps even illuminating, the flaws that make our relationship unique — one of a kind, imperfectly special, a relationship that has weathered something difficult and come out stronger on the other side.

                        author

Tammy Lenski

Dr. Tammy Lenski helps individuals, pairs, teams, and audiences navigate disagreement better, address friction, and build alignment. Her current work centers on creating the conditions for robust collaboration and sound decisions while fostering resilient personal and professional relationships. Her conflict resolution podcast and blog, Disagree Better, are available at https://tammylenski.com/archives/… MORE >

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