What I Learned from the Accidental Thief

IMG_0431After herding my three rambunctious and exhausted kids out of the ski chalet, I discovered that my skis were missing. In a panic, I alerted my husband, and we searched high and low … to no avail. As I went inside to report the (probable) theft, he did some sleuthing and noticed that close to where I’d stored my skis was another pair of skis of the same brand, model, and size as mine. Suspicious of an accidental ski swap, he tried fitting my ski boots into the bindings and when they snapped into place, he was determined to solve the “mystery.” He stood on alert watching for women skiers about my size and eventually spotted a ski instructor skiing downhill on (what looked like) my skis. As she shepherded her class back to the lesson area, he approached her and asked, “Are you sure that those are your skis?” Turns out that in the commotion of getting her class geared up, she had mistakenly taken my skis instead of hers.

Fast forward eight years … I had trained for the Kortelopet, a big cross-country ski race in northern Wisconsin and made plans to stay at my relatives’ cabin with a friend and her good friend, Kathy, who was also planning to race. Sparked by the anticipation of a shared adventure and nurtured with the warmth of chili, fire, and a mutual friend, I kindled a new friendship with Kathy. On race morning we left at dawn, drove to the remote parking area, and boarded a shuttle bus. As we settled onto the bus, I noticed that Kathy had put name labels on her skis and commented that it was a good idea. She perked up and told me that she has made this a practice because several years earlier, she’d accidentally taken someone else’s skis and described the humiliating experience. As she shared the details of her story … teaching ski lessons to kids … the husband confronting her at the bottom of the ski run … the couple was about to call the police … her students looking at her in shock, I realized that she was telling me the other side of my story. After we pieced it all together and realized that we’d had a chance encounter over (stolen) skis, we laughed and bonded even further. We get a good chuckle every time we tell our shared story!

The “Accidental Thief” story reminds me that the impressions we make in chance encounters may follow us into the future. Different settings and different roles might shed new light on a situation or shift the dynamics of a relationship. Three lessons I take from my encounter with the Accidental Thief might be useful in keeping relationships intact for future opportunities.

  • Imagine If Roles Were Different – I have vivid memories of being a consultant in the 90s and meeting other consultants who viewed me as a competitor and treated me rudely. Then later when I worked at General Mills and was in a position to hire consultants, they would greet me with smiles and hugs. Because of their previous behavior, I couldn’t help but view their overtures of friendship with cynicism. Throughout my career, I’ve watched bosses become peers, peers become bosses, clients become vendors, and competitors become clients. While I can’t say that I’m the best role model in this regard, I’ve observed that those who treat everyone with respect and sincerity tend to weather changing roles successfully.
  • Assume Positive Intent – Even though my husband believed that Kathy had mistakenly taken my skis, the situation put her on the defensive. Sensitive and empathetic by nature, she was mortified to find herself in this predicament. If he had been abusive and escalated the situation with threats and accusations, it would have been very hard for Kathy to become friends with us many years later.
  • Put Yourself in the Other Person’s Shoes (Ski Boots) – When I picture Kathy hustling half a dozen little kids into ski gear and onto the chair lift, it’s not hard to imagine how she could accidentally put on the wrong pair of skis. At the time, I understood the simple mistake she made, but after getting to know her and hearing her version of the story, my heart went out to her even more. I know that if I had taken someone’s skis by mistake, I would have wanted the owner to treat me with understanding and compassion.

Story sharing builds bridges and empathy. During controversy, actively seek the other person’s story and let your imagination wander into their experience. Chances are, you might think differently about your position.

Have you had a chance encounter with someone who reappears in your life later? How did the first and subsequent encounters unfold? Perhaps you have a story worth sharing?


 

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