How not to miss an opportunity to make a difference

When we listen to someone's story, we just might find that the difference between ourselves and the person we encounter is razor-thin


When supervisors and leaders retire, they take with them decades of accumulated skills, experience and patterns of thinking about how things get done – also known as “institutional knowledge” – that may not be passed along. To collect that information, Police1 has created the Institutional Knowledge Project to create a repository of lessons learned around the management of people, policy, training, supervision and discipline that can be applied by future generations of police supervisors and leaders when handling similar situations. 

To participate in Police1's Institutional Knowledge Project, click here. Questions? Email editor@police1.com.

What happened?

I was an FTO for my agency for nearly 22 years. During one shift, I was training a young officer and we were called to the home of an elderly lady who wanted to report a theft.

From the moment my young partner spoke with her she was not exactly what I would describe as "hostile," but definitely not friendly. Something was just off. She was argumentative, defensive and questioning. It was an odd reaction you don't normally get when taking a simple report.

By asking a 93-year-old lady a simple question, the officer connected on a very deep level. (Photo/Pixabay)
By asking a 93-year-old lady a simple question, the officer connected on a very deep level. (Photo/Pixabay)

As the rookie took down her name and gathered the information for the report I could tell that her demeanor was affecting him and the tone of his voice and body language became a reflection of hers.

How did you handle the situation?

After gathering her information my rookie returned to our patrol car to get a case number leaving me alone with the lady.

At first, she didn't say a word so I asked if she was okay and said that she seemed very upset.

She looked at me with tears in her eyes and rolled up the sleeve on her arm and showed me a tattoo on her forearm. I knew exactly what it was.

She went on to explain that she was grateful that we were there but that our uniforms reminded her of the guards in the Nazi concentration camp she had been held at when she was a little girl and that many of her family, including her parents, had been killed. The lady went on to tell me that our uniforms took her back to that time and she was frightened even though she knew we were there to help her.

A minute or so later my rookie returned and gave her the case number and told her we'd do what we could to find her belongings. We left the house and when we sat back in the patrol car the rookie commented on how hostile the lady had been but in a more derogatory fashion if you catch my drift. Then I told him her story.

Looking back, was there anything would you have done differently?

No.

What lesson did you identify from this situation?

As a training officer, I saw plenty of good officers come to my department and it was a privilege to train them, but the one life skill that many of them lacked, especially the younger ones, was the ability to have a conversation with a stranger, to small talk, and more importantly to empathize. And maybe that's where experience comes into play.

I don't know that I had that skill when I was a young officer either but those were different times. We have to be willing to listen to someone else's story so we can see things and understand their perspective. We just might find that the difference between ourselves and the person we encounter is razor-thin.

I asked this 93-year-old lady a simple question that allowed her to share her story and, in doing so, it completely changed the dynamic for her and me. In that three-minute conversation, I understood her and she knew that I cared enough to ask and to listen. She told me so herself. How often do we miss opportunities to make a difference when we don't take a few minutes to ask, "What's your story?"

To participate in Police1's Institutional Knowledge Project, click here. Questions? Email editor@police1.com.

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