Developing assertiveness as an artist

Remember Lilith from last time? Reflecting on my disastrous experience from a safe distance, I’ve been exploring the difference between being aggressive versus being assertive.

Learning to be assertive has been a huge transformation for me over the years. I’ve gone from being someone who was afraid to stand up for myself to someone who finds being assertive has become a natural way of life.

But being assertive about money (and other things) took time. One of the most contentious topics you can imagine, and yet we learned nothing about it during our training at music college.

As a young piano accompanist straight out of college, I found I was still working for free. Was I suddenly supposed to charge the singers I’d been working with at college? They weren’t earning much yet either. So I kept my mouth shut and played for their auditions and competitions without asking for payment, hoping that, of course, they’d realise this was now my living. Nope. I soon learned that if I didn’t ask, I didn’t get. It was a sad lesson, but a necessary one.

Setting expectations upfront became a necessary part of working with other musicians. I had to learn to talk about money openly and easily (something that didn’t happen in my family) and that took some time.

As for working conditions- wow! I’ve played in halls with broken heating, with instruments covered in dust, and in theatres infested with mosquitos. Swiping wildly at mosquitos with one hand while trying to play the Marriage of Figaro with the other was no fun. it’s not always easy to say something, but these are just not acceptable situations. In the case of no heating, we came together as a group and insisted on finding another space. In the case of the mosquitos… well, that time citronella candles were the best we could do.

So how do we go about learning to be assertive? People always worry about what exactly to say. There are certainly some do’s and don’ts that make sense- for example, being accusatory and judgmental won’t improve your communication. These pointers can help:

  • Listening and asking questions from a place of curiosity
  • Asking for what you want
  • Saying how you feel  
  • Saying what will work best for you

However, if you are in a balanced place of self-care, integrity and kindness, it will be a lot easier to find the words when you need them than by memorising particular phrases or speeches.

Here are the things that have helped me and my clients to get there:

  1. Being clear about what you want. What are your goals and dreams? Where are you heading?
  2. Knowing what values you want to express and embody. What principles do you stand for?
  3. Taking consistent action towards 1) and 2). What are you willing to do to move forward?
  4. Learning how to handle resistance to acting. What’s hindering your progress?
  5. Embracing a growth mindset. Are you open to changing your direction?
  6. Building resilience through self-support. What helps you heal from rejection and disappointment?

In my coaching practice, we explore these different areas and how to develop them. For example, regarding values, my client Rebecca was miserable in her job as a flute teacher. In our sessions, she got in touch with the fact that respect is one of her primary values. As she connected with the reasons why she felt so resentful at her boss, she decided to honour herself by asking for better working conditions, and eventually a raise. It took courage, but in the process became she became more assertive and self-supportive, rather than simply being mad at the people around her. As a result of speaking up, she got the raise and better working hours, and, as an extra benefit, her boss is now treating her much better personally.

This is just one example. Which of these aspects would be most impactful for you? If you’d like help unpacking any of these areas, let me know how if I can support you through coaching. It’s one of my favourite things to do.