Aggressive vs assertive- spot the difference!

“Lilith”, the conductor began, “I’m afraid some of those pitches were a bit off- shall we try that again?” It was a tricky contemporary opera score, and everyone knew it would take some time to master.

 “I only got it wrong because of the pianist, “ Lilith retorted immediately, eying me with hostility, “she didn’t give me the right cue.”

I blushed with shock and my stomach turned. I’d been working on the opera for a few weeks already and was used to the difficulties of contemporary music, so I knew I’d played the score accurately.

The conductor said nothing except, “Well, let’s just try it again, shall we?”

Frowning, I repeated the cue, gradually Lilith mastered the notes and we moved on, but not before she had again blamed me for missing her next entrance. I was livid that Lilith had put the blame on me unfairly, but I didn’t want to cause a scene, so I said nothing. Playing the piano that day felt like kneading dough, heavy and tiring.

As a collaborative pianist and opera repetiteur, my main goal was to support the singers I worked with, and I was well-equipped to do so. I’d grown accustomed to deferring to others in rehearsal. However, the downside of my staying mute, apart from my discomfort, was that I wasn’t sure what the musical director thought, and that maybe he also blamed me for Lilith’s errors.

Looking back, I realise that I didn’t know how to be assertive—in fact, I confused being assertive with being aggressive, so it was easier to stay quiet, passive in fact.

What does it mean to be assertive?

 The Cambridge Dictionary states: “To behave in a way that expresses your confidence, importance, or power and earns you respect from others.”

I dislike this definition because it describes a behaviour, rather than a consciousness. A behaviour which doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with who you really are or what you value.

I prefer to think of assertiveness as coming from an inner state of balance. This can be an easy way to distinguish assertiveness from aggression (which is being out of balance).

Lilith was out of balance in this rehearsal, which is what caused her to lash out. It may have felt satisfying in the moment, but that behaviour tends to backfire in terms of establishing a professional reputation and conscious, healthy relationships.

Looking back now, I wonder what other options I had which avoid either aggression or passivity.

Being assertive could have involved:

  1. Asking her to come over to the piano, where we could look at the phrase together privately and get clear on what was accurate.
  2. Speaking up in the moment to ask her not to speak about/to me in that way.
  3. Going to the musical director to check that we were in agreement about the accuracy of what I had played. Then it would be up to him to manage the situation.

Assertiveness means:

  • Being in your integrity- knowing yourself, respecting yourself
  • Keeping agreements and behaving according to your values
  • Forgiving yourself for the times you screw up.
  • Demonstrating self-compassion.
  • Speaking up to protect something higher/bigger/more vulnerable than yourself.
  • Choosing to stand up rather than shrinking.
  • Being willing to be present and spontaneous,
  • Being adaptable- willing to let go of the plan but still have a clear intention in mind.
  • Trusting yourself in the moment.  Then you don’t need to spend so much time having practice conversations in your head.

But how do you become more assertive?  Find out in next week’s episode! And in the meantime, feel free to get in touch via my website (see comments for link).