In all of the years that I have been researching soft skills the number one skill that keeps coming up year after year is the ability to communicate. This tells me one of two things, either we are good at it or we are really bad at it. From my experience with working with people, including myself, we need to practice healthy dialogue more. It took my wife about 10 years to get me to understand when to use hearing and when to listen. Something that I have to deliberately practice every day because there’s one reason good communication skills are a hard habit to maintain. The reason is people, including ourselves.

Communication is an umbrella word for everything that falls under that heading.

There are many forms of communication:

  • Listening
  • Asking effective questions
  • Nonverbal language
  • Healthy dialogue
  • Radical candor
  • Delivery – verbal and written
  • Understanding what is being said
  • Civility
  • Personal interpretation
  • Empathy… and the list goes on

There is one common denominator in all of this and its people. Not the people physically themselves, but what they bring every time they show up and we call that personal psychodynamics

What are you talking about?

In many of the learning events I do, I come across a good number of leaders who have advanced degrees in business, leadership, education, and organizational development to name a few. At the end of some of my learning events where we have been able to be authentic and vulnerable leaders, I often get this interesting question. 

Someone will ask me, “Why did I not get this in my university program?” I ask what is this you are referring to? They usually make big circles with their arms and say, “You know, this, people.” I ask for clarification around what you mean by people, I know where this is going, I just want to make sure they do as well. 

Here’s what I hear

They tell me that it’s one thing to be book smart but when you apply all of the leadership and business best practices, models, theories, applications, and ideas they learned and apply that knowledge to real-world practices, everything changes when you add people. 

My answer to them is, “You are right, it’s called personal psychodynamics.”


Dr. Daniel Kahneman, is Eugene Higgins Professor of Psychology Emeritus at Princeton University, Professor of Psychology and Public Affairs Emeritus at Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, and Nobel Prize recipient for Economic Science in 2002. Dr. Kahneman wrote the book titled: Thinking, Fast and Slow. In his book he discusses many aspects of the brain and an effect he calls ‘assessing normality’, basically it’s how our personal view of the world known as psychodynamics is formed, I call this our ‘source of truth lens’. 

The brain has two operating systems.

Dr. Kahneman tells us that our brain is divided into two systems. System 1, our primitive brain, operates automatically and quickly with little to no control over our emotions, actions, and reactions. This is the part of our brain that is tasked with our self-preservation as a human. 

System 1 constructs for us our view of normality by weaving together circumstances, events, actions, reactions, emotions, situations, and outcomes that have happened to us from birth to the moment you are reading this post. This post might evoke some form of reaction from you if it challenges any aspect of your source of truth. When you are having a conversation and someone says something contradictory to your source of truth and you react outside of your control, you can thank system 1 for that.

System 2, our new brain the frontal cortex, is where the mental activities of complex evaluations occur like problem-solving, decision-making, and understanding complex patterns of ideas, thoughts, and consequences. This part of our brain doesn’t run automatically, we have to engage it. Did anyone ever tell you to count to 10 before you react? Great advice, what you are doing is giving your brain time to engage system 2 to manage any emotional reaction system 1 is about to unload on someone.

The main function of system 1 is to update and maintain our world through personal experiences. This is how we view, assess, and judge the world around us and what we believe to be normal behavior to us. This is what makes us unique from everyone else and creates our personal psychodynamic view of the world.

As these life events are linked, formed, and strengthened over time, this becomes our source of truth lens, the representation of the structure of events in our life, and it determines our interpretation of the present and expectations of the future.  

Communication and the effects of system 1

Back to the idea of what happens when we add people to the mix. Let’s say your team, department, or organization is going to go through a change and you plan to use a change model like the Prosci ADCAR model or Kotter’s 8-step change model. You look at the models that make total sense to you and see how they would work and be successful.

You present the best model you believe with fit your team’s needs at a team meeting, and the pushback begins:

  • The reasons why it won’t work.
  • Now is not the best time to do this.
  • We have too much work to add to our workload.
  • What is wrong with what we are doing now?
  • I don’t like change so I’m not doing this.
  • Are you crazy? 

This is what my leader learners were talking about, you found a change model you thought would work, the company or individual who created it said it would work, and you talked to other leaders who said it would work. What you don’t know is how your people would react to it. It’s the people’s reactions based on their previous experiences and current situations that were not considered in the approach, model, or anything else because they were never included from the very beginning.

Communication – the beginning

This is the beginning of the dialogue about communication. If you are struggling with communication challenges, communication conflict, interpersonal conflicts, leader challenges with staff, or feeling like you are taking two steps forward and three steps backward, don’t blame people and understand the effect of personal psychodynamics. The skill of active listening is a life-long practice skill. There will always be a person or a situation that will test your ability to listen waiting around every corner.

Exercise | Deliberate practice

At the beginning of this post, I gave you an idea of how to better understand communication and maybe a lot of things. It’s impossible to know what is going on in everyone’s life all the time so it’s helpful to try to identify what’s currently happening. This is the art of being curious about other people and situations.

Before you try to change or fix something, try to understand someone’s opinion and view first by asking yourself this question, “What don’t I know?”, then open a space where people can talk about their views, thoughts, fears, or feelings, and listen. 

  • Before I launch this new change model, ask yourself, what don’t I know? 
  • Before I have the following one-on-one conversation with my staff member, ask yourself what don’t I know?
  • When everyone seems to be frustrated in the meeting, ask yourself what don’t I know? 
  • Before the conversation gets heated with your significant other, stop and ask yourself, what don’t I know? 

Ask yourself this question as well, “What do I know?” You may know more than you think. Add that knowledge to what you discover when you find out what you don’t know and a lot of things may become more clear. Asking the right questions and actively listening can be incredible leadership skills to practice.  

If you want good communication to establish and maintain a safe space start by clarifying your perception of the situation. Remember your source of truth lens is different from everyone else’s, so be patient. Nobody’s wrong, everyone just sees it differently. This is what makes us uniquely individual, don’t take that away from anyone. 

In learning events, after I talk about how each one of us is different because of our source of truth lens, I use this illustration:

I say, “I’m sitting in a meeting and the presenter tells a joke. The person to my left is laughing their head off, the person to my right is grimacing, and I think the joke was in bad taste. Which one of us is wrong and which one is right?” People usually take a few seconds and someone very quietly says, “No one???” I ask them to tell me more. They usually say that’s because everyone sees the world differently.

I tell people if a chance of conflict arises this creates an opportunity to step back and ask, “Tell me more.” Then engage your active listening with the intent to understand their view or position before you react or respond. This does not mean you have to agree or change your view, it demonstrates your wisdom in understanding all sides of a conversation.  

The real challenge is to get everyone to engage system 2 before system 1 runs amuck. This is your chance to get your team to practice the question “What don’t I know?”, together. Tell them before they react to ask themselves that question. Also, tell them to understand that you don’t have to change your viewpoint, you are creating a space to practice curiosity to understand someone else’s viewpoint by sustaining judgment, and in return, someone may graciously ask you about your viewpoint. This is your version of getting them to count to 10 and you now know why.

The better everyone understands the situation and how others view the problem, the better communication can become. Got to start somewhere so start practicing yourself so you can model the behavior you would like to see everyone else do. Remember, this takes patience and deliberate practice. 

Don’t wait for tomorrow, tomorrow never comes. What you have is today and this is the best time to begin anything.