Assertiveness is a skill that many of us have to train ourselves to master. After all, it can be uncomfortable to set boundaries or even just speak up for what we know is right.
So how do you practice or channel that instinct? As psychologist Adam Galinsky explains in a TED Talk, the natural ability to assert ourselves comes most easily in a very specific circumstance: When we have to advocate for someone else.
He calls it the “Mama Bear Effect”—the idea that when a mama bear is in the position of defending her cubs, all bets are off. In that situation, we have no problem expressing our needs while staying self-assured and direct. As Galinsky describes it, advocating for others is one of the best ways to discover our “range of acceptable behavior” and helps lay the groundwork for the next time we have to do it on our own behalf.
I’ll use a personal example: About six months ago, I hit a childcare snafu and needed to advocate for my 4-year-old son. Our new nanny had expectations that my child couldn’t meet and was being more rigid than I wanted her to be. I was anxious about the conversation, but surprised myself when push came to shove with my inner calm and clarity. I expressed my needs and those of my son clearly, unemotionally and with an eye towards our shared goal. The outcome? We were able to reach a solution that worked for both sides.