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Don't Be Pushy: Artistic Assertiveness
By Mike Roberts - 04/05/2004 - 02:47 PM EDT

Have you ever been in a musical situation where you felt unhappy with the direction things were taking, but you just didn’t know what to say or do about it?

Let’s talk about assertive communication.

Being assertive keeps us from getting walked on and pushed around. To communicate assertively means to express our ideas in a positive and confident way, even when those ideas express displeasure or disagreement. A happy world does not depend upon the absence of confrontation, just the healthy resolution of that confrontation when it arises. And it inevitably will.

Now, some may think of assertiveness as being bossy or controlling, but it is quite the opposite. In fact, to behave in a controlling manner could more accurately be described as being extremely opinionated, over-confident or simply arrogant (does that describe any other artists you know?) but never “assertive” as that would be giving them too much credit. Let me explain.

Communicating is like driving a car. When conversing, we have the ability to put the brakes on, coast, or all out accelerate...

To brake is when we put a halt on things (e.g. “I have to go now so we’ll talk more later” or “let’s back up for a second” or “wait a minute this is getting out of hand”).

To coast is when we exchange simple dialogue that keeps the conversation moving but neither confirms nor disputes any specific points (e.g. “yeah I understand what you’re saying” or “hmm that’s interesting” or “I’m not sure how I feel about that”).

To accelerate is when we assert something into the conversation that expresses a specific point in no uncertain terms (e.g. “yeah I understand what you’re saying, but I think you could’ve handled things better” or “no, I have to disagree with that” or “what I think about that is…”).

The most effective conversation will involve as much coasting as possible, a healthy degree of acceleration only when needed, and will obviously brake and hopefully come to a smooth stop at some point.

The need for acceleration, however, is less like driving a car and more like driving a spaceship in outer space. Consider... astronauts only use thrusters occasionally--just a little bump is enough and the coast will take care of the rest. Over-accelerate and you could end up fatally off course. Likewise, it is enjoyable to be in a conversation with an individual that listens to and considers what you say, “offering” what they think without forcing it down your throat. Not that they cannot state a strong position. After all, they are an intelligent person. But they don't make the entire conversation a statement of one position after another with no room for your input. That would be like the astronaut holding his finger down on the thruster button without ever stopping to check bearings and ensure the ship is still on course. So when is it best to assert something?

We use assertiveness to accelerate when we have something factual to state. When a fact or strongly held belief is stated it thrusts the conversation forward. Hopefully it will be in the right direction. It is not assertive, on the other hand, when someone tries to accelerate based on opinion alone. That is simply pushy. Now, if you can back your opinion up with evidence or factual data, that is different. You no longer have an opinion but an educated and well-informed position. But even still, if it is not a commonly held position you should still offer it for consideration, and then carefully present the evidence, as opposed to just insisting that everyone embrace it immediately because you know it to be true. Always give people time to catch up with you.

So, have I answered my original question: “Have you ever been in a musical situation where you felt unhappy with the direction things were taking, but you just didn’t know what to say or do about it?” To put it plainly: You must assert yourself for the sake of your own artistic piece of mind and sense of integrity, bearing in mind that you assert facts and offer opinions.

For example, I have found myself in situations where my discomfort was due strictly to a difference in personal tastes and the fact that my opinion of the way things were had become negative. That doesn’t give me the right to assert that things are actually bad, or that there’s something wrong with the people involved. In all fairness, it may be that it just isn’t the right fit for me, but that doesn’t make it inherently bad.

Here’s me asserting my opinion: “You know, I just don’t think this is going anywhere. I mean, I don’t think anyone is gonna go for a heavy metal band featuring distorted tuba playing. That’s gotta be the lamest thing anyone’s ever thought of…”

Here’s me offering my opinion and asserting my sense of artistic integrity: “You know, I just don’t think I’m the right fit for this project. Maybe I'm wrong, but I don't think the distorted tuba thing is going to go over well. And if I can’t really believe in what we’re doing, then I’m only going to drag us down. I want you to start considering other people that can replace me, and I think I should start exploring other options that are closer to my interests.”

Do you see how the first one actually passes judgement and projects a negative tone? However, the second option is positive and actually clearer than the first. In the first option, is it clear that I’m going to leave the band? As far as other band members can tell, maybe I’m wanting to take over and re-engineer the project, maybe start a mutiny or something. Whereas, in the second option, I’m outta here… it’s that simple… but, we’re all still friends.

To me, it is important that we learn to part ways or have disagreements yet retain friendships every chance we can. That's the art of diplomacy. Because you never know if some future situation just may hinge on a relationship from the past that got burned by bad communication. Never assume the world is so big that you will never need those people again. We can always benefit from responsibly, peacefully and assertively dealing with issues as they arise without killing relationships by shoving our opinions down other's throats. After all, it's a small world.


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