Is Trivializing the Root of All Interpersonal Woes?
I was doing some reading the other day when I came across the term “trivializing.”
It gets thrown about in popular media, and often is something you learn to somewhat ignore, just because of how often people lament others “trivializing” some XYZ “really big deal” to them, that seems trite or overblown to others.
Examine the classic debate between two opposites. Say someone who is pro-renewable energy because he wants to save the planet, and someone else who is pro-fossil fuels because he doesn’t want to be forced to pay top dollar for new, less effective technologies when cheaper alternatives are available.
The first guy accuses the second guy of killing the planet. The second guy feels like the first guy is trivializing his need to not burn a hole in his wallet, and becomes offended, and tells him off. The first guy then feels like the second guy is trivializing his desire to save the planet as an ignoble cause, and fiercely retorts.
This is a case of crossed wires communication-wise of the sort we discussed in “Dale Carnegie’s Most Life-Changing Piece of Advice”, but it goes broader than this, because trivializing comes in many shapes and forms, and it’s hard to detect and harder to combat in nearly all of them.
Why do people get so hurt by rejection of all sorts? I don’t know of, nor have I heard of, anyone who is completely emotionally dead to the pain of rejection. Even if you’re accustomed to it because you operate in a field where you face lots of rejection (sales, pickup, standup comedy, etc.), it’s more that you build a high tolerance to it than you totally rid yourself of any reaction to it.
If you explain rejection in terms of a value of you by others, it makes sense. When you are rejected, you have just been “trivialized”: told that you don’t matter to this other person and what you have to offer is not worth his or her time, energy, money, commitment, or whatever else it was you asked for it.
So the solution would seem pretty simple: if you don’t want to drive others away with rage and resentment, however you end things, go out of your way to not make them feel trivialized.
Yet, every day, scores of negotiations fall apart in bitterness due to perceived trivializing; relationships crumble due to one or both parties thinking the other guilty of trivializing its very important wants and needs; and pickups fall flat because the girl feels trivialized and goes into auto-rejection.
What if you could never trivialize again?
Trivialization occurs when one person brings up something that feels, to her, extremely important, only to have her concern brushed aside by the person she’s bringing it up to as unimportant.
Let’s say you’re talking to your girlfriend and she brings up that you don’t text her enough. You think this is ridiculous and laugh this off. (and I’d probably agree with you... it almost certainly is a little ridiculous)
Yet, you did not address the problem. You laughed it off.
So now she gets to nurse it and let it grow and build into something bigger for you to deal with later on down the line.
Or let’s say you’re running a new business with a friend of yours, and the two of you are partners. You’re concerned at how quickly the business has been burning through money, and you bring it up to him: you’d like to start keeping track of all receipts and everything the money is going out on, and where it’s going, so you can rein in the purse strings and make sure the limited runway you’ve got to get this thing to profitability doesn’t run out.
“This is a startup!” he cries. “The last thing we should be doing is wasting time pinching pennies – there are a million other more important things to focus on than this!” And then he marches off.
Your concern about how the money’s getting spent and cutting some of that spending has just been completely trivialized, but that doesn’t mean you stop caring about it. Instead, you hold your tongue, but chances are the problem doesn’t go away and only gets worse... and your mood toward the partnership and your feelings about the business’s prospects only grow dimmer the longer you hold it.
No one here was necessarily guilty of intentionally
trivializing. He may
have been – we’ll talk about that next – but it’s quite common for
trivializing to be a totally unconscious response to something that
seems ridiculously unimportant to us.
Instead, it ends up being a kneejerk, automatic retort to something that you (or someone else) felt was needlessly irrelevant – “Get this irrelevancy out of here, and let’s get back to more important things!” goes the feeling.
But no matter how pure the intention may be, the outcome is still
Trivializing as Deception
Trivializing isn’t just something you stumble into, however. It is
also something frequently used by individuals to deliberately downplay
things that are not advantageous to them to be seen as “big deals.”
One easy example is if you’re pretty inexperienced with women, only to discover that your new girlfriend is actually quite sexually experienced. Your insecurity will tend to kick in, and you’ll become worried. “Oh, come on,” she says, “I might be a little more experienced than you, but you’re still clearly the boss of this relationship.”
You feel heartened; meanwhile, she’s dodged the bullet of having to deal with the very real power differential that usually exists between partners of differing levels of sexual experience.
On the other hand, you may find yourself in this same position later on down the line, when inexperienced girlfriends get a hint of your level of sexual experience and start freaking out – in this case, you’ll find you end up being the one trivializing how big a deal it is, to quite frequently the same end.
Here’s another: let’s say your less experienced, less effective colleague at work gets promoted, while you stay put. You complain to your boss: he’s both nowhere near as productive, and he’s less experienced, you say!
Your boss tells you there, there, it’s nothing to worry about, there’s another promotion cycle coming up in 6 months and you stand a good chance of being promoted then. In fact, you can start preparing for it now.
He almost certainly knows the other worker was less “deserving” of the promotion than you were (assuming you really are more experienced + effective, and this isn’t just your overly biased opinion of yourself!), but it doesn’t do him any good to try to explain to you why someone less deserving got the promotion over someone more so.
So, he trivializes the importance of the matter, brushes it to the side, and refixes your attention on another objective: there’s another promotion cycle coming up in 6 months... with the implication that, well, if that one doesn’t work out, there’ll be yet another 6 months after this...
Minimize and distract. That’s the trivializing way.
Thus, trivializing is not just an unconscious kneejerk response; it’s also used quite consciously (or semi-consciously) all the time by people who know you have a point but don’t want to deal with it.
(and before anyone goes all moral superiority on us here –
I’ve yet to meet someone who doesn’t indulge in conscious trivializing
at least some of the time,
and the more righteous someone makes himself out to be, the more he
Yet, it never solves problems – merely pushes them to the side, to crop up again later, in fuller force.
How do you combat people trivializing things that are important to you... and does trivializing ever even work?
Obviously, people wouldn’t do it if it was totally ineffective.
So what situations do people choose to employ it in... and how can you avoid being the person or in the situation where they will employ it against your concerns?
How Trivializing Works
Here’s what trivializing does: it buys time.
It doesn’t solve the problem.
It doesn’t make it go away (usually).
Instead, it pushes dealing with the problem off into the future, when the trivializer hopefully is better prepared to deal with it... or perhaps has already moved on.
Remember, the feeling here is “Get this irrelevancy out of here, and let’s get back to more important things!”
The trivialized concern is treated as unimportant, with other, more important things taking precedence over it.
This is useful in relationships, where buying time gets the force of inertia on your side. The inexperienced partner who’s miffed about your partner count might be able to extirpate him or herself from the relationship early on before the attachment’s gotten too strong, but by the time s/he’s a year in, it’s too late.
It’s also useful in work situations – John in accounting may be in a tizzy that Milford got the promotion instead of him, but if you push his anger off and let it spin out, when he doesn’t get promoted again during the next round of promotions, by now it’s become expected that he won’t move up and he’s not going to rashly hand in his resignation... more like quietly stew and mope around yet continue putting in his hours (saving you the time and energy from having to go out and hire someone new to take his place for quite some time).
As a tactic for pushing things in your favor, therefore, trivializing is actually pretty effective.
Most people won’t realize what you’re doing.
You may be able to use it ethically if you trivialize something to head off the heated emotion, and then quietly set to work correcting the situation once the individual’s attention has been called away momentarily to something else.
In this way, you actually get the best of both worlds – you push off the emotional fallout of the problem to the future, then resolve the problem so the need for the other person to bring it up again and create all that emotional fallout goes away.
But most folks don’t do this. Instead, they just irresponsibly trivialize and push a problem off... then do absolutely nothing to solve it in the meantime.
And either they get out of there and move “onto the next one” before it comes back to haunt them... or, it comes back to haunt them.
Combatting Trivialization Directed at You
While there is the occasional ethical trivializer out there – the person who marginalizes the problem while it’s hot, but takes this as a signpost that he needs to set to work on it, and proceeds to correct it as soon as it’ll no longer seem reactive and supplicating to do so – if you’re counting on people who are trivializing to be this way, you’re going to find yourself left high and dry more often than a grain of sand finds itself the same atop a dune in the Sahara Desert.
Therefore, it’s best to treat trivialization as something hostile to your interests.
It may be conscious on the part of the trivializer. It may be semi-conscious. It may be an unconscious, kneejerk reaction. Most of the time, you will have no way to ever know for sure.
No matter what though, you must combat it.
Your interests are being marginalized, and they will not be addressed.
Unless you make them be addressed.
Point out distraction or trivialization. You have to be aware of this before you can do it, but the point is to immediately call out someone else for trying to distract your attention another direction or trivializing your concern.
To the boss trivializing your concerns about the promotion and distracting you to get you to focus on the promotion cycle in 6 months, you’d say, “I realize that, but I didn’t come here to talk about the promotion cycle in 6 months – I came here to talk about this promotion and why Milford won it over John [John being you... easier to say this in the third party and not sound overly self-focused].”
To a girlfriend who’s, say, trivialized your need to have a clean apartment, because every time she stays with you for any amount of time she leaves it a pig sty and this drives you nuts, when she tells you that a messy apartment isn’t a big deal and she doesn’t care if your place is messy, tell her, “I’m glad, but this isn’t about you – it’s about me, and how unable to think clearly I am when I’m in a messy space.”
Take the blame off the trivializer. You don’t know whether the other individual’s attention was to trivialize your issue or not, but either way it isn’t worthwhile to inveigh against him, as that’ll only put him on the defensive (or even turn him combative) and shut his ears to your argument. So say, “You’re trivializing my concern right now – I don’t think you mean to do it, because it probably seems unimportant from where you’re sitting.”
Stress the importance of the matter. Tell him, “For me, this is the most important issue in the world right now,” which makes any subsequent efforts to trivialize by the same person difficult or impossible. Most people will quit trivializing at this point; the only ones who continue trying are either absolutely clueless, or fiendishly (and stubbornly) manipulative.
User a counterexample. If the person isn’t getting it and you’re quick on your feet (and high in empathy), you can use a counterexample that speaks deeply to his own emotions. In the case of the boss, you could say, “How would you feel if Chris (the inept manager two offices down) got promoted to regional manager while you stayed here in Smalltown, with no explanation? That’s how I feel.” To the girl who’s making your apartment messy, you could say, “How would you feel if every time I came over to your place, important items of yours would go missing and you’d have to spend 45 minutes looking for them every time after I left? I feel the same way when my place is a pig sty for no real reason and I have to go cleaning it up every time you leave.”
Be a bulldog. When someone trivializes something important to you, unless he’s super conscientious, he’s going to tend to continue trying to trivialize it until you really get it through his head how important it is. Even if he “got it” to some extent, and isn’t trying to trivialize any more, he will frequently still try to put it off some other way. The only thing you can do here is be a bulldog and stay on the subject until some sort of resolution is achieved.
If you can execute these, you will generally find you do pretty well at shutting down trivializing whenever you realize someone is doing it to you.
But what about the other side – how do you stop unconsciously trivializing the concerns of people in your life... and creating bigger messes for you to sweep up later on down the line?
Axing Your Own Tendencies to Trivialize
It’s pretty natural to trivialize matters you don’t think are important.
Just look at any political / religious / ideological debate and how gaily everyone from pundit to peanut gallery member marginalizes the importance of the other side’s stated priorities while hoisting his own priorities up as matters of great urgency. All you get is two sides trivializing one another while fighting for a spotlight that illuminates nothing. No wonder opposing sides of any ideological argument always detest each other... everyone is trivializing, everyone is talking, and no one’s really listening.
What you must realize is that EVERY item someone brings up to you is something IMPORTANT to him or her.
And, you must also realize that you almost certainly don’t know why it’s important... because if it doesn’t seem important to you, then you are most probably thinking about it from a very different perspective.
This takes patience. It takes tremendous patience to both:
Use enough empathy to really see someone else’s perspective, and
Hold this opposing viewpoint in your mind without letting the dissonance get to you
As such, reducing your tendencies to trivialize is actually a patience-building exercise.
It makes you extremely patient toward views that seem at first mindlessly inconsequential and brain dead to you, and makes you far more aware of how very different minds different from yours are operating in some regards.
What you realize is:
The girl complaining fearfully about how large your number of sex partners is compared to hers isn’t just whining. There’s something there that is a very real concern for her, and if you plan on sticking around with her you’re going to need to address it
The girl you’ve just met and are trying to bring back home with you who’s raising a slew of objections is going to be a little more likely to go with you if you effectively sideline her objections... but she will be a lot more likely to go with you if you handle her objections and resolve them on the spot
That friend who’s complaining that you’re a bad man for picking up and sleeping with girls you have no intention of having a relationship with is raising a genuine concern – he is afraid you are leading women on. An honest discussion with him in which you address his concerns and help him understand that you’re extremely clear up front with women about what they can expect from you usually is going to change his stance and turn him from a potential cockblock into a potential wingman
The boss who’s trying to micromanage you and getting on your nerves isn’t just being paranoid. He’s genuinely concerned that you are going to slip up or make some crucial mistake. If you sit down with him and figure out exactly what it is he’s afraid you’re going to do wrong, you can then figure out the best way to reassure him you’ll take care of it so he can stop stressing out and leave you in peace without you having to trivialize his concerns (”Don’t worry, I’ll handle it!”)
Essentially what you’re doing is opening up the communication channels about something someone is raising as an issue and saying, “Okay – so what’s the big deal with this one? I need details if we’re to actually resolve the problem!”
And then clearing it up.
That takes more work to do than just dismissively trivializing. However, it’s also many times more effective at removing points of failure from your life.
Think about it like having a rickety wooden bridge with a few rotten wooden slats. Trivializing problems is throwing duct tape around the rotten parts of the slats along the bridge path. Clearing the air on them and achieving resolution is like figuring out where all the boards are that have rotten parts, pulling them up, and replacing them with fresh, healthy boards instead.
More work up front, but dramatically less work than trying to swing down to the ledge below and rescue the poor guy who fell through the bridge, or trying to make your way out to the middle of the bridge to patch up a bad spot later when the whole bridge is filled with traps and dangers, because you merely threw a Band-Aid on the thing instead of grabbing your toolbox and a few extra slats of wood and fixing it.
Treat Trivialization as a “Very Bad Thing”
The more I’ve come to understand trivialization, the more I’ve come to see it as a VERY BAD THING that poisons relationships and fills them with landmines.
The worst part is, people usually engage in it out of impatience more than anything else. Sometimes it’s panicky defensiveness when someone springs an issue on you that you weren’t expecting to have to deal with, but much of the time it’s just annoyance at a matter being raised that you don’t think is very important.
The nice thing is that once you’ve gotten into a habit of not trivializing issues and instead seeking to understand their underlying motives and what the real, core concern is, you lose this impatience and begin to actually get pretty interested in and excited about these kinds of differences. You start to realize you can actually settle what would otherwise be intractable differences and points of resentment between people simply by taking a few minutes to tease out why something is so important to someone, instead of brushing it to the side under the assumption that it isn’t important and s/he is just delusional.
You will still probably catch yourself trivializing from time to time. And you’ll still catch yourself sitting and stewing over something, only to realize that these emotions have come as the result of someone having trivialized something you thought was incredibly important to discuss.
But the more you focus on this, the more you recognize the habit – both in yourself, and others.
And that leads you to running your relationships in a much healthier way, plus resisting the efforts of those who would sideline and marginalize you all the more effectively, because you know what they are doing, and can call them out on it.
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