The eBay buyer filed for online mediation. The item in question was a Barbie doll petticoat. The cost of the petticoat she’d just purchased on eBay? Less than $5.
The cause of the conflict was a $5 Barbie petticoat? Apropos, I remember thinking, when I received the mediation case. Petty is the right word for sure.
Over a decade ago, I was in a small group of mediators who first mediated for eBay. At the time, online dispute resolution was a brave new world indeed, and we were learning and giving it form as we went.
The mediations were all between buyers and sellers. Either could file for mediation, pay a small fee, and then the other could respond to the filer’s objections so that the mediator would receive the case with a little information from each party.
The mediation took place entirely online. Most were relatively brief. Others lasted weeks, even months. Some were over $5 items, like the petticoat. Others were over items that ran into the many thousands. I distinctly recall one case involving an island, purchased sight unseen. But that’s another story.
As I stared at the petticoat case on my computer screen, it was tempting to roll my eyes at someone taking the time to file for mediation over a $5 item that in six months – maybe far less – she wouldn’t even remember.
But, as I caution my mediation graduate students, when you’re tempted to think how ridiculous someone’s being, that’s the time to sit up, pay attention, and slap yourself back into reality.
Because that’s exactly the moment you missed something very important. People don’t take time and energy over trivial things, the things that don’t matter in their lives. Just because it appears trivial doesn’t mean it is. The very fact that Ms. Petticoat had filed for mediation told me there was something much more important at stake for her. The real causes of conflict often require scratching the surface a bit.
It’s true in your own work and life, too. When you’re outraged by someone getting angry over something that you don’t think should matter, pay attention. When you’re dismissing someone’s frustration is unimportant or trivial, stop yourself. And ask yourself what I asked myself that day in front of the computer.
What’s important that I’m missing?
In Ms. Petticoat’s case, what was important were legitimate human desires like this: Not being taken advantage of. Standing by her principles. Ensuring that eBay had trustworthy sellers doing business by challenging someone she believed was not trustworthy or honest.
Those aren’t petty at all. Neither are the apparently trivial things you may be tempted to dismiss when others raise them.