Crucial Conversations QA

How to Confront a Suspected Thief

Dear Cricket,

Recently, I dressed up for a presentation at school. (I am 14, by the way.) I brought a drawstring bag with me with, an extra set of pants, and my $160 sneakers to change into when my presentation was done. I accidentally left my drawstring bag with my pants and sneakers in the library. I realized this around third period, but because I have fifth period in the library I decided to get my bag then. It wasn’t there. My pants were there, but my shoes were gone. In the two years I’ve spent at this school, I’ve never seen anyone wear similar shoes, but today I spotted a girl wearing the exact same shoes. They were laced how I laced mine, and were stained and in the same condition as mine. I have the same lunch as this girl. How should I go about confronting her about giving them back? I don’t have much free time during the day and I’m afraid if I go up to her when she’s with friends I’ll look stupid. Do I allow her a day or demand them right there?

Sincerely,
Shoeless

Dear Shoeless,

How upsetting it must be to have had your beloved belongings disappear like that! It can be so tempting to move into the blame game and conclude that this gal has callously stolen from you for her own gain. Beware the temptation. Remember the principles.

Master Your Stories:

Rather than villainize her, ask “Why would a reasonable, rational, and decent person do this?” Might she honestly have just found some shoes lying around and felt confused about how to return the items? Or could someone else have found them and gifted them to her?

Start With Heart:

It’s important to consider what you really want. If shame and blame are the goal, you will likely find it hard to maintain conditions that lead to dialogue. Try focusing your energies on the goal of learning what happened and recovering missing items instead. Your tone and delivery will bely your underlying motive, so try and get that in check before you enter into the conversation.

STATE Your Path:

Take care to lead with facts and not your conclusions. Help paint a picture for her so that she can better understand why you might be tempted to draw the conclusions you’re drawing here.

As far as your delivery goes . . . perhaps your mother taught you what mine taught me? “Remember, it’s not just what you say, it’s how you say it that matters!” I always like to go for a friendly, curious, and open tone as I seek to create safety for others when delivering a sensitive message.

If I were in your shoes . . . or not, as the case may be here (Sorry, I couldn’t resist!), I might try this approach:

“Hello! You don’t know me and I don’t want to bother you, especially in front of your friends. I just have a question for you. Would you mind chatting with me over here for a second?

I saw last week you were wearing a pair of red Nike Air Max sneakers. Please know that I don’t normally hunt girls down to talk about their shoes, but I’ve never seen anyone else at this school wear anything like those. I couldn’t help but notice they look so much like the shoes I recently lost here at school (even down to the way they are laced and the stain on the toes near where the color had rubbed off).

A few months ago, I accidentally left a pair just like those in a drawstring bag (with a pair of pants) in the library and I’ve been looking for them ever since. I know I’d want someone to tell me if something I found may belong to them, so that’s the reason I bring it up. I wonder if you might have been the one to find my shoes?”

The key is to avoid blame and shame. When people feel safe with us, we make it less likely that they will feel a need to deflect, hide, or lie to us.

Good luck, and I hope you and your shoes may be reunited again soon!
Cricket

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Cricket Buchler

Cricket Buchler is a corporate coach and a VitalSmarts Master Trainer. She has helped thousands of people around the globe build dialogue skills, create accountability, and drive behavior change.

4 thoughts on “How to Confront a Suspected Thief”

  1. Wow! A good response if the theft happened outside of school. Too often advice providers circumvent the adults set in place to deal gently and supportively with all involved – school counsellors and administrators. How about we teach kids to go to the right people so that they are in the know from the get-go rather than putting out fires if the conversation goes sideways. They might give the same advice, but at least they can monitor the interaction and provide direct support.

  2. Cricket,

    You could not be more wrong in this instance. The young lady has only two real alternatives in this situation: (1) go to her school counselor with this matter, or (2) learn a hard lesson of life that thieves will steal anything that they have an opportunity to take (and say goodbye to the shoes). The dynamics of this school environment are not known to you and addressing the matter with the thief could have some rather dire results for the victim no matter how understanding she might try to be.

  3. First, regarding this specific situation, I very much concur with the comments to remember the setting–get adults involved.

    Second, I’m disappointed that the article and advice stopped where it did. The response failed to realistically address the what if’s. There is no “ask” in the message. One of the delineated goals is to get back the girl’s shoes. Yet, the response stops well short of describing a path to that outcome. For lots of folks, that is the hardest part of practicing Crucial Conversations–how to ask for what we want and knowing how to respond when the other person goes directly to silence or violence despite our best efforts. This response would have been much more useful and cross-situation relevant if it had gone on to say to deal the possible (likely) response of the second girl demanding whether the first was accusing her of stealing her shoes, strongly affirming she bought the shoes herself. That’s when the conversation gets truly “crucial.”

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