The 3xA approach: Agree, Ask, Answer (or: Agree, Challenge, Explain)
Having conversations about sensitive topics can be challenging. Emotions run high, and disagreements can escalate quickly. I came across an approach with the YouTuber Debug Your Brain that he calls: Agree-Ask-Answer. You could also call it the 3xA approach.
3xA approach: Agree-Ask-Answer
The core of the 3xA approach lies in three steps: Agree, Ask, and Answer. This method helps to minimize defensiveness and promotes open conversation. I personally think that this approach can also be called: Agree - Challenge - Explain.
- Agree: If your conversation partner says things that don't make sense or are contrary to the facts, it can be tempting to immediately object. You do not do this with the 3xA approach. You first agree with what the other person says by identifying a point of agreement. This allows the other person to notice that you have heard and understood them and that you validate his perspective, at least partly. Agreeing first gives you the advantage that you do not have to come up with your arguments immediately and can take a moment to breathe and think.
- Ask (Challenge): Instead of directly pointing out the error in the other person's statement, challenge them to test his own assumptions, facts, arguments, etc. Your question may create an opening for your conversation partner to see that his original statement may not be entirely or not always correct and that there may be another way of looking at the subject.
- Answer (Explain): In this phase you provide clear arguments, information and facts. You respond with the goal of increasing awareness and understanding.
To illustrate how the approach works, I provide some examples below. The first two are loosely based on Debug Your Brain, the others I came up with.
► “We should not give up eating meat. We've been eating it forever!”
- Agree: “That's right. We have been eating it for a long time.”
- Ask: “Do you think it's okay because we've been doing it for a long time? Have there been other examples in history where we had been doing something for a long time and it turned out not to be okay?” (If the person does not know an example, you can give examples such as: slavery, not giving women the right to vote, colonizing other countries, etc.)
- Answer: “Switching to a plant-based diet is recommended by many scientific studies as a way to reduce our carbon footprint and improve our health.”
► “As a vegan you cannot get all the necessary nutrients”
- Agree: “Yes, I understand why you say that. I thought that for a while too.”
- Ask: “Which nutrients do you think you can't get as a vegan?”
- Answer: (For example, if they mention calcium then you can mention plant foods that contain calcium).
► “Corona vaccines are dangerous. An acquaintance of mine, who studies biology, said that”
- Agree: “I understand your concerns about vaccine safety, especially if someone with biological knowledge has doubts.”
- Ask: “What specific concerns does your knowledge have about the vaccines? Are there studies that support these concerns?”
- Answer: “Being critical is important, but it is essential to consider all scientific data. Organizations such as the WHO and CDC have confirmed the safety of corona vaccines, with the benefits outweighing the risks, based on thorough research.”
► “There must be an immigration stop. Let the government first solve the problems of our own citiziens before they start helping foreigners.”
- Agree: “I understand your concerns about national problems and the importance of government care for citizens.”
- Ask: “Would an immigration stop really solve the problems of citizens? Are there examples where this has been effective?”
- Answer: “It is crucial to see the complexity of issues such as healthcare and housing. Immigrants can actually contribute to solutions, such as filling labor shortages. A balanced approach that considers both the needs of current citizens and the benefits of immigration is necessary for a resilient society.”
► “You are no longer allowed to say anything in this country!”
- Agree: “I understand that it feels like freedom of expression is under pressure. It is important that people feel free to express their opinions.”
- Ask: “Can you give examples of times when you felt limited in what you could say? How do you think a good balance can be found between being able to say what you think and respectful communication?”
- Answer: “Freedom of expression is a fundamental right, but it also comes with responsibility. It is important to find a balance between expressing our thoughts and respecting others. A society in which open and respectful communication is valued helps to create a safe and pleasant environment for everyone.”
► “If we continue to develop artificial intelligence, it won't be long before AI takes us over and threatens humanity.”
- Agree: “It is important to think about the future implications of AI and how we manage this technology.”
- Ask: “Is it correct to assume that any progress in AI will inevitably lead us to a negative scenario, without room for regulation and ethical considerations?”
- Answer: “By developing and implementing ethical AI principles, we can realize the benefits of AI while managing the risks. Many experts are working on this to ensure balanced progress.”
Attitude and tone
The 3xA approach is versatile and can be applied to various topics, from climate change to political ideologies. Of course, applying it is not just about the words you say but also about your tone. If you say the phrases sarcastically, they won't work. A respectful, calm, non-judgmental tone and attitude are a prerequisite.
Simple but not easy
Debug Your Brain presents the method as a simple hack. However, while the approach is not that difficult to understand, it is not at all easy to implement.
- When formulating the Agree step, it is not a matter of simply repeating what the other person said, but of focusing on elements of agreement. So you have to be able to recognize and express them quickly. Moreover, it may be necessary to positively rephrase the other person's formulation (place the formulation in a slightly more constructive light).
- When formulating the Ask step (challenge), you need to be able to think quickly. You must be able to quickly recognize the illogic or inaccuracy in the other person's statement and convert it into a challenging question to the other person.
- When formulating your Answer (explain), you must have your facts and arguments on the subject well organized in order to be able to formulate them concisely and clearly.
The 3xA approach seems to me to be an interesting tool for conducting constructive dialogues on sensitive topics. Although simple in concept, using this method effectively requires practice, an understanding of the subject matter, and the ability to respond quickly and empathetically.