The Three A’s Method (AAA-ENDS)

Verbal Empowerment: Win Hearts, Inspire Minds, and Stay Safe When It’s Hard

We can’t change others, so we need a peaceful way to safety leave the hostility treadmill and bring others with us.

This powerful method is called “The Three A’s” or AAA-ENDS.

It works even it you are the only person following it.

“If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change.” -Mahatma Gandhi

The AAA-ENDS Steps

When you feel tension in a conversation, either in you or in them, that’s your signal! Calm both hearts and find common ground using AAA-ENDS:

  • ACCEPT with an inner smile. (Mutual Respect)
  • ALIGN with their heart and mind. (Mutual Empathy)
  • ASK how to meet both sets of needs. (Mutual Purpose)
  • Use your “nuclear option” ENDS as a last resort. (Stay Safe)

The Details and the Model

The AAA-ENDS is like three doors (Accept, Align Heart, Align Mind) leading into a “room of opportunity” (Ask) with a safety net (ENDS) under everything.

ALL the doors need to be open together, or you can’t enter or stay in that room. OPEN the closed doors and the discussion suddenly becomes pleasant. Use the safety net only when the doors slam shut.

Each door—and the room—requires you to:

  • SAY something to get it started, and
  • HEAR something specific that tells you that you are done.

The three doors may be opened in any order. Do what feels most comfortable.

DOOR 1: ACCEPT their “reasons why” with an inner smile. (Mutual Respect)

People do things for good reasons. —Kevin Crenshaw
Seek first to understand. —Stephen R. Covey

  • YOU SAY: “I’m sure you have a good reason, help me understand.” Or you can guess at their good reason and tell them. They’ll correct you if you guess wrong.
  • YOU HEAR YOURSELF SAY: “That makes sense.”

You now ACCEPT their reasons without judgment, whether or not you agree. The first door is now open.

YOUR heart is now at peace.

DOORS 2/3: ALIGN with their mind and heart. (Mutual Empathy)

You can’t reach the mind until you calm the heart. —Kevin Crenshaw


  • YOU SAY: “So it feels to you like (insert their THOUGHTS here).”
  • YOU HEAR THEM SAY: “That’s right!” or something similar, like “Yes.” “Uh huh.” “Pretty close.”

They now feel understood LOGICALLY, which starts to calm their heart. The second door is now open.


  • YOU SAY: “So you’re feeling (insert their EMOTION here).” Ignore their words and guess if needed.
  • YOU HEAR THEM SAY: “That’s right!” or something similar, like “Yes.” “Sure.” “Yeah.” Or even “Ya think?”

They now feel understood EMOTIONALLY. Some people will understand their own emotions for the first time because you labelled them without judgement. This de-escalates and finishes calming their heart, usually in 90 seconds or less! The third door is now open.

THEIR heart is now at peace.

When ALL THREE doors are open, proceed immediately into the room of opportunity.

ROOM OF OPPORTUNITY: ASK for a mutual solution. (Mutual Purpose)

Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much. —Helen Keller

This is where you explain your side, WHILE still respecting and aligning with their thoughts and feelings. Keep all three doors open at all times! If any door starts to close, immediately open it up again as described above. When they start to understand your side:

  • YOU SAY:What would it take to meet BOTH of our interests/needs?” Other variants are “What if…?” and “How could we do both?”
  • YOU HEAR: “OK, we’ll try this ….” Or “Or even “I’ll have to think about that.”

You are now choosing a next step to find common ground and a mutually acceptable solution together.

NUCLEAR OPTIONS: Use ENDS keep things safe as a last resort. (Stay Safe)

Everyone has the right to feel safe. —Kevin Crenshaw

If the conversation becomes abusive and is escalating out of control, set respectful boundaries using these “nuclear options.” Use as a last resort because they may force the conversation to end.

Try these in order. They increase in severity to keep you safe.


  • YOU SAY:When you ________, I feel ________ because ________.” For example: “When you shout at me, I feel hurt because I like you.”
  • YOU HOPE TO HEAR: Something calmer or conciliatory. “You’re right.” “I’m sorry.” “I didn’t mean to shout.” If you hear progress, immediately leave this step and start opening doors using the Three A’s above.

NUCLEAR OPTION 2: NAME THE ABUSE out loud, clearly, specifically, yet gently.

Addressing boss hostility head-on produces the best results long-term, according to this study.

  • YOU SAY:That is __________, it’s unkind (or uncivil or abusive). Can we talk without that?” For example: “That is labeling and name-calling, it’s unkind. Can we talk without that?”
  • YOU HOPE TO HEAR: Something more civil, even if angry. “Sure.” “OK.” “I guess so.” Or even “what do you mean?” If you hear progress, immediately leave this step and start opening doors using the Three A’s above.

Naming is an escalation that keeps you safe from abuse but will probably escalate and end the conversation. Naming is powerful because it’s a form of containment. There’s a terrifying unseen monster in the sci-fi classic, Forbidden Planet, but the fear subsides when a ray gun gives it shape. Shining a bright light on verbal or emotional violence creates safety for you and others because you see it for what it is.


  • YOU SAY:I’ve got to go, let’s pick this up in 20 minutes (tomorrow).
  • DO NOT WAIT TO HEAR ANYTHING: Just leave or hang up. The environment is not currently safe. When you meet again, pretending incivility never happened lets them save face and feel good about the new conversation.


You already named the severe incivility/abuse. You choose to stay present to give them more time to calm down.

  • YOU SAY: Nothing. Silence gives them space and time to calm down. Do not fill the silence and let them off the hook. Give them space to think and compose themselves.
  • YOU HOPE TO HEAR: Something non-abusive, even if still angry, which is likely. If you hear progress, immediately leave this step and start opening doors using the Three A’s above, and continue as if no incivility had happened.

Why “The Three A’s” Work

“Conflict is inevitable. Combat is optional.” —Max Lucado

AAA is similar to the three steps of Verbal Aikido, but you can start using it instantly because it’s simple. And when AAA fails, the final (ENDS) steps protect you from the impact of verbal or emotional abuse.

AAA-ENDS works because:

  • Is based on proven methods
  • Is simple
  • Puts you in control
  • Only requires one of you to use it
  • Keeps you and them safe
  • Gives everyone benefit of the doubt
  • Ends the temptation to retaliate
  • Encourages positive discussion
  • Inspires change
  • Becomes habit
  • Gives you a way out when needed

Note: If you are ever in physical danger, leave immediately.
AAA-ENDS is only for verbally- and emotionally-charged conversations.

Actual Results

“Who is this guy that I just sat on the phone with for  an hour, and who supported me so much I never stopped smiling and WHAT DID YOU DO WITH MY BOSS?!?!? 🙂 🙂 🙂 :)” – Worker/Manager

“This is incredible. I just had a conversation with [worker] that never would have gone this well before. I just need to remember to not jump in and ask for things until I’ve calmed his heart. In the long run, it was faster than the old way because I didn’t need to force him to comply!” – Director

More Information and Acknowledgements

Neverboss: Great Leadership by Letting Go, The Rapid Blueprint for Empowering Leadership

Neverboss: Great Leadership by Letting Go, 2nd Ed. The Rapid Blueprint for Empowering Leadership by Kevin Crenshaw and Laura Shane Crenshaw. Rapid empowerment for entire organizations, and see especially the chapter on Tools of Engagement (verbal empowerment, universal safety, Open Floor Policy).

De-escalate: How to Calm an Angry Person in 90 Seconds or Less by Douglas Noll. Great resource on verbal de-escalation.

Never Split The Difference: Negotiating as If Your Life Depended On It by Christopher Voss. Brilliant work on tactical empathy.

Talk directly with Kevin Crenshaw, CEO of Neverboss, Empowering Leadership Champion and Instant COO.

Connect, follow, and chat with Kevin Crenshaw on LinkedIn or Twitter.