Goals, plans, action theory

The Goals, Plans, Action theory explains how people use influence over others to accomplish their goals. This theory is prominent in the field of interpersonal communication. The theory is a model for how individuals gain compliance from others.[1] There can be multiple goals related to the need for compliance. These goals are separated into primary and secondary categories. These goals are then translated into plans, both strategic and tactical, and finally carried out in actions. The Goals, Plans, Action theory has shown application in academic and personal relationships.[2][3]


The Goals, Plans, Action theory was first drafted by James Price Dillard in 1990 in his book Seeking Compliance: The Production of Interpersonal Influence Messages.[4] Since then, several amendments to the theory have been made by Dillard and other communications scholars.[3][5][6][7][8]


The Goals, Plans, Action theory makes the following assumptions: individuals are predictable, goals are based on deeper values, and their behavior is intentional. As a practical theory, the Goals, Plans, Action theory assumes that the world is knowable. Individuals will follow certain objective cognitive processes that result in their behavior.[6] In addition, goals are the tangible product of values. The individual's attitude, beliefs, and cultural background inform their goals.[9] Finally, individuals are deliberate in their actions: the greater the desire to accomplish their objective, the harder they will work.[9]


The Goals, Plans, Action theory includes the following concepts: the individual has at least one of seven primary goals along with one of five secondary goals, and plans are both thoughtful and actionable.

Primary goalsEdit

There are seven primary goals that drive plans, and ultimately lead to action. These goals are defined as primary because they are found at the beginning of the goal attainment process. They are also referred to as influence goals as they are the key ways an individual might impact another person.[6] The primary goals are: gain assistance, give advice, share activity, change orientation, change relationship, obtain permission, and enforce rights and obligations.[5] With each of the goals, the individual is intending to provide or obtain something to further their relationship with the other person.

Secondary goalsEdit

Secondary goals are derivative of primary goals: without a primary goal, no secondary goals exist.[6] Secondary goals directly apply to the actions of the individual in the Goals, Plans, Action model.[7] There are five secondary goals: identity, conversation management, relational resource, personal resource, and affect management.[8] Identity goals are based on the individual's self-concept. Conversation management goals pertain to how the individual behaves around others. Relational resource goals depend on the individual's value of relationships.[6] Personal resource goals focus on the physical and material well-being of the individual. Affect management goals pertain to managing emotions and feelings during a conversation.


Plans exist at two levels: strategic and tactical.[6] Strategic plans indicate what should be accomplished. Tactical plans indicate how that will be done. The strategies are general while the tactics are specific.[1] An example of a strategic plan might be to ask for help, while a tactical plan would be to list out your previous attempts and explain what you aren't able to do.


In this theory, action can be taken through both verbal and non-verbal messages. There are four dimensions of actions: explicitness, dominance, argument, and control over outcomes.[10] Explicitness refers to how clear the message is. The easier the message is to understand, the better the results are likely to be. Dominance refers to the amount of control the individual has over the other. The more power they have, the more likely they are to get what they want. Argument refers to the justification behind the message. The better the reasoning, the better the chances of accomplishing their goal(s). Control over outcomes refers to how much say the individual has in what happens next. The more jurisdiction they have, the more likely they are to see their intended results.


The Goals, Plans, Action theory declares that individuals knowingly act in order to accomplish a certain outcome. The 'why' behind their behavior is known.[4] Individuals may be acting upon multiple goals at a time, dependent on current circumstances.[11] These goals, both primary and secondary, may conflict with one another, and may change over time.[3] In a relationship, as the individual seeks to influence the other, they will look to familiar plans and actions first.[6] If those plans and actions do not meet their needs, they will branch out.


Academic relationshipsEdit

The Goals, Plans, Action theory was applied to academics in Henningson et al.'s study of interactions between students and professors regarding disappointing grades.[2] In the study, the primary goal is to ask for reconsideration of the score. Secondary goals included conversation management and relationship resource management. The students didn't want their professors to think worse of them because of the conversation, and wanted to maintain or improve their relationship with them. Planning was measured using questions about the students' strategy for their conversation with their professors. Through the study, Henningson et al. were able to prove the Goals, Plans, Action theory in the context of appealing a grade. The decision to appeal was based on thoughtful intentions, come to life through specific plans. However, the actual attempt of discussing the grade with the professor only occurred 16.8% of the time.[2]

Personal relationshipsEdit

The Goals, Plans, Action theory has also been applied to personal relationships.[3] In a study analyzing voicemail messages after hypothetical problematic events in relationships, Samp and Solomon researched how the subjects came to their final message. The study determined that relational partners (both romantic and not) had specific intentions that drove their voicemail messages after a hypothetical problematic event.[12] Primary goals identified in the study were to change orientation, change relationship, obtain permission, and enforce rights and obligations. Secondary goals included all five of those identified in the theory: identity, conversation management, relational resource, personal resource, and affect management. Through the study Samp and Solomon also found that goal features had a significant effect on the communication: more complex goals led more intricate, longer messages. Their conclusions help to understand how individuals gain compliance in relationships during difficult situations.


Since the development of the theory, scholars have called into question its ability to explain human behavior.

Gregory Shepherd argues that communication is not always driven by goals, but can be seen as a mere social interaction.[13] He states that if it were, there could be no unplanned or purposeless actions. In response, Dillard and Schrader distinguish between action (purposeful) and other types of behavior (purposeless).[14]

Hairong Feng questions the simplicity of the theory, expressing that the framework is too vague for the complicated psychological activity involved in communication.[15] However, she does find the idea of primary and secondary goals to be aligned with other theories.


  1. ^ a b Littlejohn, S.; Foss, K (2011). Theories of Human Communication (10th ed.). Long Grove, IL: Waveland Press. ISBN 9781577667063.
  2. ^ a b c Henningsen, M.; Valde, K.; Russell, G.A.; Russell, G.R. (2011). "Student–faculty interactions about disappointing grades: Application of the goals–plans–actions model and the theory of planned behavior". Communication Education. 60 (2): 174–190. doi:10.1080/03634523.2010.533378. ISSN 0363-4523.
  3. ^ a b c d Caughlin, J. (2010). "Invited review article: A multiple goals theory of personal relationships: Conceptual integration and program overview". Journal of Social and Personal Relationships. 27 (6): 824–848. doi:10.1177/0265407510373262. ISSN 0265-4075.
  4. ^ a b Dillard, J. (1990). "A goal-driven model of interpersonal influence". Seeking compliance: The production of interpersonal influence messages. Scottsdale, AZ: Gorsuch Scarisbrick. pp. 41–56. ISBN 978-0897873406.
  5. ^ a b Dillard, J.; Anderson, J.; Knobloch, L. (2002). "Interpersonal influence". In Knapp, M.; Daly, J. (eds.). The handbook of interpersonal communication. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, Inc. pp. 423–474. ISBN 978-0761921608.
  6. ^ a b c d e f g Dillard, J. (2008), "Goals-plans-action theory of message production: Making influence messages", Engaging Theories in Interpersonal Communication: Multiple Perspectives, SAGE Publications, Inc., pp. 65–76, doi:10.4135/9781483329529.n5, ISBN 9781412938525, retrieved 2019-09-16
  7. ^ a b Schrader, D.; Dillard, J. (1998). "Goal structures and interpersonal influence". Communication Studies. 49 (4): 276–293. doi:10.1080/10510979809368538. ISSN 1051-0974.
  8. ^ a b Dillard, J.; Segrin, C.; Harden, J. (1989). "Primary and secondary goals in the production of interpersonal influence messages". Communication Monographs. 56 (1): 19–38. doi:10.1080/03637758909390247. ISSN 0363-7751.
  9. ^ a b Ajzen, I.; Madden, T. (1986). "Prediction of goal-directed behavior: Attitudes, intentions, and perceived behavioral control". Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. 22 (5): 453–474. doi:10.1016/0022-1031(86)90045-4. ISSN 0022-1031.
  10. ^ Dillard, J.; Wilson, S.; Tusing, K.; Kinney, T. (1997). "Politeness judgments in personal relationships". Journal of Language and Social Psychology. 16 (3): 297–325. doi:10.1177/0261927x970163003. ISSN 0261-927X.
  11. ^ Berger, C. (2005). "Interpersonal communication: Theoretical perspectives, future prospects". Journal of Communication. 55 (3): 415–447. doi:10.1093/joc/55.3.415.
  12. ^ Samp, J.; Solomon, D. (1999). "Communicative responses to problematic events in close relationships II". Communication Research. 26 (2): 193–239. doi:10.1177/009365099026002005.
  13. ^ Shepherd, G. (1998). "Response: The trouble with goals". Communication Studies. 49 (4): 294–299. doi:10.1080/10510979809368539. ISSN 1051-0974.
  14. ^ Dillard, J.; Schrader, D. (1998). "Reply: On the utility of the goals‐plans‐action sequence". Communication Studies. 49 (4): 300–304. doi:10.1080/10510979809368540. ISSN 1051-0974.
  15. ^ Feng, H. (2014). "A critical review of the primary/secondary goal framework". Journal of Communication and Culture. 13.