When you’re tempted to dismiss someone’s concern as trivial or roll your eyes at the things people find to fight over, it’s time to sit up straight and pay attention. You’re missing something, and it could be important.
Cindy June of Milton, New York, had a problem on her hands: Her rooster, Farnsworth, was waking the neighbors.
The town building inspector, who took readings of Farnsworth’s loud crows, said later, “This wasn’t one occurrence. Many neighbors complained.”
Unfortunately for Farnsworth, his crowing exceeded the town noise ordinance’s 55-decibel limit. The Milton Town Court ordered Farnsworth’s vocal cords removed.
Bird specialists at Tufts and Cornell universities warned that such a procedure was too risky and recommended castration instead. Castration would lower Farnsworth’s testosterone and decrease his morning wake-up calls.
June reluctantly agreed to have Farnsworth castrated.
I first wrote about Farnsworth in 2017, saying that this story isn’t about the crazy things people find to argue about. It isn’t about wasting public funds or public officials’ time on ridiculous disputes. And it isn’t about how this conflict should never have gotten as far as court.
The triviality trap
It’s a story about understanding that when people fight about something, even when it seems trivial or ridiculous to us, there’s something in there that’s important to them.
When people fight about something, even when it seems trivial to us, there’s something in there that’s important to them. It’s worth figuring out what that is.Tweet this
When we dismiss their concern as trivial, we fall prey to The Triviality Trap, the mistaken conclusion that because their problem appears inconsequential on the surface, it actually is inconsequential.
Years ago, when online dispute resolution was a brand new idea, I mediated eBay buyer and seller disputes as part of a small, inaugural group of mediators helping develop eBay’s online dispute resolution processes and platform.
One day, a new case came in: A dispute filed by the buyer of a $5 Barbie doll petticoat. The collectible petticoat was supposed to have been in mint condition in a never-opened box. The buyer was angry that there was cat hair inside the box.
I’m ashamed to admit that my first reaction was to roll my eyes as I read the case. I thought, “She filed a case over a $5 petticoat? Petty is exactly right.” But of course, few people would put time, money, and mental energy into a $5 matter unless there’s something else at play. And there was: Ms. Petticoat felt taken advantage of and wanted to demonstrate that she was no pushover. She wanted to be able to trust eBay sellers. Those are not trivial interests.
Tunneling beneath the trivial
To avoid The Triviality Trap and uncover what’s important beneath a seemingly inconsequential issue, try questions like these to understand someone else’s interests or articulate your own:
- Why is this important to you?
- What’s bothering you about it?
- If this gets addressed, how will it have helped you or others?
“He was my buddy”
Cindy June’s rooster, Farnsworth, didn’t make it through surgery. The dispute and his death made the news, and that’s how we know that Farnsworth was something more to Cindy June than an average rooster in the yard.
In the faded Albany Times Union newspaper clipping I’ve read to countless mediation grad students over the years, June explained that Farnsworth was her steady companion. He was house-trained and loved to sit and watch television with her in the evenings. She even kenneled him when she went away.
“He was my buddy,” she said. “It was just a stupid chicken, but I’ve cried a river.”