The Importance of Props

I recently had an extended consulting project with a company in Silicon Valley. As I was frequently onsite, I developed a rapport with one of the receptionists, whom I’ll call Barbara Lara-Johnson (not her real name). She brightened my day every time I went there. She was fun to interact with, was a huge 49er’s football fan, rode a motorcycle, and was courteous and helpful with everyone. In short, memorable!

One particular interaction with her made her even more unforgettable. I never had to worry about remembering her name because she had a nameplate on the counter. One day after I checked in and we caught up a bit, I said, “Well, thank you for your help, Ms. Lara-Johnson.” To which she replied, “It’s Lara. Just Ms. Lara. I keep that name plate there to remind me not to do anything that stupid again.” We had a good laugh about less-than-smart relationship decisions we both had made in the past.

I tell this story to many of my clients because, well, it’s kind of amusing, but also because it makes a bigger point about the need for reminders and props. You’ve probably been to a great many training programs where you learned a lot, but how often can you remember any of the trenchant insights you had during the class or the promises you made about what you’d do differently afterwards?

It has always been challenging to remain focused on the most important matters in our lives, and that has certainly not been made any easier by the myriad electronic distractions all around us. If we needed reminders in the past to keep us dialed in, we need them more than ever now.

Another reason props are so important is because the changes we are trying to make and new behaviors we are cultivating are new to us. They are not natural and it is far too easy to fall back on inveterate ways of responding. Props are reminders to choose a different way of responding.

I had a client who was trying to slow herself down when speaking up in meetings and to develop an air of gravitas. We ended up referring to the qualities she was trying to cultivate as a kind of “old bull” energy. I recommended she find and frame a picture of an old bull to keep in her office as a reminder of how she wanted to show up. At a subsequent meeting, there sat the picture on her desk. She said that it was really helping. Every time she glanced at the picture, she took a deep breath and reminded herself of how she wanted to be.

Another client was a force of nature in meetings with peers and people at lower organizational levels. However, if more senior people were in the room, it was as if he had been hypnotized. He lost his verve and often failed to speak up. We looked at his calendar to see when meetings with SVPs were coming up and he set alarms on his phone to vibrate during those meetings to remind him to stay present and focus on what needed to be said and done.

I am grateful about meeting Ms Lara-Johnson. Getting it right was so important to her that she was willing to put the wrong name on her desk and risk causing confusion in others and some embarrassment for herself.

We probably don’t need our reminders to evoke feelings quite as strong as this; however, given all the distractions around us and how difficult behavior change is, it is likely that we’ll need them to accomplish all that we want to do.

Dennis graduated from the Professional Coaching Course in 2015. You can read more from him on his blog.

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