Tools of Assertiveness: Decide, Plan, Act

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To foster an assertive personality, actively taking care of yourself in a way that still respects the rights and needs of others, practice applying these simple steps: decide, plan, act.

One of my minor areas of study as a graduate psychology student was business organization and management. While during my coursework I was exposed to many different theories of business strategy, there appeared a solid consensus among management researchers about the formula for success when addressing a concern:

Determine the exact nature of the presenting problem.
Resolve to commit time, energy and resources to addressing the problem.
Define your goals, then devise short and long-term objectives to reach those goals as well as the methods you need to employ to further your objectives.
After you’ve planned your work, then work your plan.
Assess both the reasonableness of your goals and objectives your as well as your progress on meeting those objectives and the effectiveness of your methods.
Make necessary course corrections in your plan, and then resume working your plan.

These guidelines for managerial assertiveness have proven their value in the competitive workplace many times over. But in my later work as a therapist providing assertiveness training to clients, I found three of the components outlined above to also be of paramount importance. When it comes to asserting yourself and maximizing your chances for success, the rules are as simple as 1-2-3: Decide, Plan, then Act.

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I once counseled a young woman whose financial situation made it clear to her that she needed a different job. While she truly hated many aspects of her existing situation, especially her level of compensation (she was at the top of the pay scale for her position and there were no higher paying alternatives available within the organization), there was one thing that kept her hooked: security. She had been with the company a long time, had decent working relationships with many of her co-workers, and knew both the company and her position within it to be stable and secure. So as badly as she needed to make a change, she was hesitant to take the inevitable risks associated with leaving what was already both familiar and safe. While she frequently insisted she had explored other opportunities, she always seemed to find some reason that other possibilities probably wouldn’t work out. Eventually, it became clear: she really hadn’t made the decision to leave, and until she did, she couldn’t possibly commit to an alternate plan of action.

Making a decision to do something is often less of a rational thought process and more of an internal emotional reckoning. Naturally, it would have been unnecessarily reckless for this woman to simply turn in her resignation with no viable alternatives in sight. But all of her so-called exploring of other alternatives was half-hearted at best because she hadn’t yet really made the decision in her heart to leave the safety of her current job and accept the risks associated with change. So she was going nowhere fast. The decision she needed to make had more to do with coming to some inner peace about giving up the security she enjoyed in favor of the bigger career opportunity and the better compensation that she so sorely needed. Once she came to terms with the reasons for her ambivalence and actually made the firm decision to leave, everything changed. From that moment on, planning her next moves more naturally fell into place. She was then able to fashion some short and long term goals. For the short-term, she would use some of her ample accumulated leave time to seriously interview at other companies. For the longer term, she would map out the pros and cons and costs and benefits of the viable placement alternatives she found, perhaps even being willing to accept a position at a less than perfect place for the intermediate term as a sort of “stepping stone” to a more ideal placement she sought for the long run. Once she was sure of the soundness of her plan, the only thing left was to put the plan into action, never looking back but only looking forward and making adjustments when necessary. She did work this plan and in the end, secured a great position at a stellar company with good pay and regular performance bonuses, and she quickly became part of the upper management team. But there’s no way she could have gotten where she did without taking that first step of making the firm decision to make a change, then holding fast to the vision of where she wanted to be and faithfully working her plan to get there.

When we first began working together, I would never have described this woman as an assertive personality. In fact, she was much more like the “ambivalent” types I describe in Character Disturbance and In Sheep’s Clothing. And her ambivalence extended far beyond the indecisiveness she displayed when first contemplating a change of jobs. She was ambivalent in her relationships as well, wanting to be her own person but frequently hooking up with those she felt were more capable than her, becoming far too emotionally dependent upon them, and struggling with the competing emotions of upset over feeling dominated and the fear she didn’t have what it would take to chart her own course. But she’s no longer the same person she once was, and that’s definitely for the better. She was able to learn from the empowerment she felt after asserting herself in her job search and to generalize what she learned to her relationships as well. She is living proof that making changes in behavior patterns can lead to profound changes in attitudes, thinking patterns, and even personality characteristics. (For more on this see: “Putting the “B” Back into Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy”.)

Among all the various personality types, the assertive personality is arguably the most healthy. That’s because such personalities have reckoned with their anxieties, insecurities, and unhealthy dependencies and declared a sort of emotional and interpersonal independence. Assertive personalities actively take care of themselves in a way that still respects the rights and needs of others. In so doing, within their relationships they find avenues for mutual support as opposed to falling into patterns of codependence. But assertive personalities aren’t born that way, nor do they become such overnight. They have to practice assertive behavior, and that usually involves using the tools: decide, plan, then act.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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