Dr. Val Farmer
Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

SSLANTTT: Where Courtesy, Respect Begins And Love Blossoms

January 26, 2009

The KIPP Academy is an experimental public middle school in the Bronx, New York. It is best known for its mathematics program. One of the guiding principles that govern student behavior is a protocol called SSLANT.

SSLANT stands for Sit up, Smile, Listen, Ask questions, Nod when spoken to, and Track with your eyes. This formula teaches mutual respect and responsiveness and produces an atmosphere of safety and comfort for the students.

SSLANT is a good description of respectful verbal and non-verbal engagement with others. Each of these behaviors communicates involvement and interest.

With a couple of additional tweaks, SSLANT can do wonders to enhance the emotional intimacy and connection in marriage. By adding a couple of more behaviors, deeper levels of empathy and caring can supplement what is already a good formula for courtesy and respect.

I am taking the liberty of adding a "T" for tone of voice and another "T" for touch. The formula then becomes SSLANTTT.

"S" is for Sit Up - shorthand for body language. Body language is the language we interpret first and use to judge as credible another’s intentions and meaning.

Turning toward another person when being addressed is first effort at respect. General alertness and interest is communicated by posture and a slight forward lean of the body and head. If the body language isn’t right, none of the rest of it will be either.

"S" is for Smile - shorthand for warmth, friendliness and approachability. A smile says, "I am a friend or at least friendly. I welcome the conversation. You don’t have to worry about my mood."

"L" is for listen - shorthand for giving time and attention to someone else’s concerns. It is also shorthand for communicating interest and caring. People want to be understood. Listening requires a willingness to suspend one’s own agenda, self-interest, thoughts, opinions and dampen one’s emotions so as to provide undivided attention to the feelings and perspective of another.

"A" is for ask questions - shorthand for giving value to another’s point of view or perspective. There is more to learn, background to uncover, a context to understand and a line of thinking to pursue. By drawing another out, it helps him or her articulate even more what was intended. Interrupting or prematurely interjecting one’s opinion short-circuits his or her story that needs to be told.

"N" is for nod - shorthand for attentiveness, engagement and concern. A nod is saying, "I am with you. Keep going. I care about what you are saying." A nod is also shorthand for other kinds of facial expressions that are responsive to the content and emotional tone of the speaker. A motionless and unexpressive face is the emotional equivalent of not answering when you are spoken too.

"T" is for tracking with your eyes - shorthand for powerful engagement and presence. Using one’s eyes opens up a window into your own emotions as you listen. Your eyes are feedback to someone searching for cues on how the message is being received.

Eyes can communicate contempt, boredom, impatience, distraction, judgment, disbelief or they can communicate empathy, worry, interest, excitement, and concern. Little or no eye contact deprives the speaker of valuable information to gauge whether or how the message is coming across.

"T" is for tone of voice - shorthand for feelings and emotional responsivity. After body language, a speaker pays attention to tone of voice as a measure of the listener’s involvement and reaction. The listener, by varying tone of voice, one can cover a whole range of emotion and can give meta-messages as well as congruent ones - congruent with body language and content.

People can reach out and caress someone verbally with their tone of voice or verbally slap the speaker with sarcasm, contempt or disinterest. If positive emotions are expressed in tone and vzriety of voice, relationships can evolve into deeper levels of intimacy.

"T" is for touch - shorthand for empathy and closeness. Certain relationships allow for touch to be an added tool of communication. Touch, given at key moments in the communication, reinforces the emotional connection and understanding between two people and completes the communication. A listener shows with a hug, an embrace, a squeeze of the hand or a reassuring caress that he or she has a grasp of the true import and empathy for what was said.

Advice for couples. Some couples may have to work at the basics of courtesy and respect by adopting a willing attitude to please and regard each other. Good non-verbal communication and attentiveness are hard to do when your heart isn’t in it. If something is wrong at this level, then a deeper approach is necessary.

Next is breaking poor communication habits that have been layered into the relationship over time. If you do SSLANT well, you will have a foundation of respect and the beginnings of love. Posture, smiling, nodding and eye tracking are easy habits to learn - good listening isn’t so easy.

For bringing your relationship to deeper level of intimacy, work with three "TTT’s of the of formula SSLANTTT: track with eyes, tone of voice and touch. There is a whole realm of communication possible without words. It can be learned by practicing and showing emotion non-verbally. They are especially powerful when they accompany good listening.