That Time They Found a Rat in the Chili: How to Deal with Difficult People

When Robin was in residency, she had the opportunity to spend a month with the health department visiting condemned houses, filthy restaurants, and private labs.  She showered more thoroughly that month.  But the most memorable day of the rotation was the day she spent learning how to appear on television, radio, and newspaper.  She wasn’t really planning on someday appearing on television (though it happened several times!) but she learned the single most helpful tip we’ve ever heard for dealing with difficult people and difficult situations: the SOCO. We now use it for any stressful or difficult situation that comes up.

In this article we will cover:

A Rat in the Chili

Let’s say they recently found a rat in the chili at a particular fast food place (yes, that really happened but we’re sure it was just an isolated incident at that particular location…we have nothing against the unspecified chain in general anymore than any other fast food place).  You’re going on the morning news to encourage everyone to go to the upcoming flu shot clinic and get vaccinated.  Which topic do you think the reporter is likely to ask you about.  Of course!  The rat.  It’s way more interesting and more people will tune in to hear about the rat.  No one really wants to hear about vaccinations.

So before you are interviewed you come up with your Single Overriding Communication Objective, your SOCO.  In this case it might be, “We’re expecting a bad flu season.  Flu can be deadly.  Come to the free flu shot clinic and protect yourself and your loved ones.”

It’s not nearly as exciting as the rat so how do you compete with it?  Easy, you can’t do anything about what the reporter says, but you’re in charge of what comes out of your own mouth.  Just don’t say anything about the rat.

Reporter: “blah blah blah the rat?”

You: “The health department is here to keep everyone safe from health concerns, which is why we’re encouraging everyone to come to the free flu shot clinic this weekend.”

Reporter: “blah blah blah the restaurant?”

You: “We are paying attention to the situation… so we know that this year is likely to be an especially bad flu season therefore we we want everyone to get vaccinated.”

How Does This Apply to Real Life

Let’s say you know you’re going to be in an awkward situation.  You’re going to be with that person who always asks prying questions or you’re going somewhere that you’re expected to make small talk or you’re going to have to take your child somewhere that they often act out.  Or let’s say that you are often faced with the same annoying conversation with your uncle (“when are you going to get a real job” or “you should put your kids in xyz program.”)

Plan ahead with a SOCO.  

Example: You know you’ll be stuck sitting with an intrusive questioner.  

You decide to only talk about your current hobbies or their hobbies.  You make a list of hobbies ahead of time and what you could say about them.

Intrusive questioner: “Are you on medication again? You seem different.”

You: “I’m learning to play the piano. It’s something I’ve always wanted to do.  My goal is to learn to play Scott Joplin’s rags.”

Intrusive questioner: “Oh, so you’re not on medication?”

You: “Have you ever played an instrument?”

We usually have a list of 5-6 topics to stick to when facing a difficult person or event for a prolonged time.  We prep the kids before a phone call or social event in the same way. But on any given day when we know e’ll be around people (other parents, in line at the grocery store, whatever), we make sure we have 1-2 safe topics even if we privately feel like our life is falling apart.

For Recurring Situations 

As a physician, Robin’s most dreaded issue was people asking for opioids (narcotic pain medication).  Her office policy was to refer people to a pain clinic, but it was common to face tears, anger and accusations when she explained this to people. Robin is compassionate to a fault and these conversations were incredibly painful for her until she came up with a SOCO.  It took a few tries but she eventually came up with one that worked well for her: “My job is to keep you safe.”

Patient: “You don’t care about me, You don’t care about my suffering.”

Robin: “My job is to keep you safe.  I want to help you so I’m referring you to a wonderful office that will help alleviate your suffering.”

Patient: “I don’t know why I’m wasting my time here when you won’t do your job and prescribe my medication.”

Robin: “My job is to keep you safe. I’m referring you to a multidisciplinary team who will help you with your pain.”

Our most frequent use of SOCOs when the kids were younger was to cope with the people questioning the choices we’ve made for our family.  Neurodiverse kids tend to start out as their parents’ biggest worry and then develop into totally lovely adults (though potentially quirky and “underachieving” if you grade them by the same standards as society sets). Their delightful future becomes visible to others at different rates, but until others can see your child’s creativity and resourcefulness, it’s common to have to deal with the assumption that you’re a bad parent. We had one standard SOCO that worked in multiple situations.  “Thanks, this is what works for our family” is applicable most of the time someone expressed concerns about our ability to manage our children.

SOCOs in Marriage

Even though we’d love to think that every day is new, it turns out that the same situations (good or bad) come up again and again in marriage. Whether it’s Tim not knowing what to say (“I want to say the right thing but I don’t know what to say”) or Robin wanting Tim to switch his attention to her (“What is your goal right now?”), our days are packed with SOCOs. We also use cue cards for Tim with his SOCOs written out so he can just hold them up. It took him a long time to be willing to use the cards, but it’s made a huge difference in our marriage. Just as many people have learned that a handful of phrases gets you most of what you need in a foreign country, it doesn’t take too many SOCOs to get through a majority of marriage situations.

Stating Something Specific and True

Related to this is having a set of statements ready that are specific and true that you can use as fillers.  Just make sure they are somewhat on topic and that you look bright and engaged when you say them.  We typically just say that someone is loving something.

For example, when Robin quit her job to focus on launching this website with Tim, she had a number of people question what she was doing with my career.  Some people got a real explanation but not every person deserves the details…or is polite about it when they hear that she gave up the practice of medicine to create a website.  “Private practice physician” is more understandable as a job than “We rely on our fabulous Patreon community to support us while we write articles about thriving in a neurodiverse family.” So Robin just says something that is specific and true but doesn’t necessarily answer the question.  “I’m loving the opportunity to focus on my family and write articles about parenting and relationships.”  Almost no one has asked her anything further.

When the children are going through a difficult time, the generic question of “How is Charlie doing?” or “What’s Eleanor up to?” can be loaded for us. We immediately think through all the struggles we’ve had lately and what in the world are we supposed to say?  So we just tell the questioner what the kids currently love  “Charlie just loves riding his bike!” or “Eleanor loves our new cat!” imply that Charlie is adventurous and Eleanor is nurturing.  In fact, we used these particular statements during a period when Charlie’s OCD was completely paralyzing but he was at least still enjoying his rides and Eleanor was going through a particularly destructive period that included dragging the poor cat up the stairs in a pillowcase.  But not everyone needs to know that.   

My Favorite Resource

If you’ve never read Miss Manners, we’d highly recommend her books.  They are the funniest manners advice you’ll ever receive.  One of her books is chock full of pre-written SOCOs for every situation.  She doesn’t call them that, but that’s what they are.  Some of the advice is dated (they were written back when we were in high school and before) but this particular book will probably never grow old: Miss Manner’s Basic Training The Right Thing to Say.

Do you have an especially useful SOCO to share?  Do you have a different name for the same concept?

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