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Emotional Intelligence Fundamentals: A Primer

Emotional intelligence is a very talked-about topic, and while simple, it’s not easy to master. Let’s take a look at all the building blocks that make up emotional intelligence, and other support tools and activities that empower them.

The Building Blocks

  1. Internal Emotion Awareness & Execution;
  2. Reactive Emotion Awareness & Execution;
  3. Projected Emotion Awareness & Execution;
  4. Empathy;
  5. Communication Tailoring;
  6. Vulnerability & Defensiveness;
  7. Active Listening;

Support Tools

  1. Relationship Analysis;
  2. Identity & Value Clarification;
  3. Stoicism;
  4. Meditation & Physical Wellness;
  5. Natural/”Cosmic” Awareness;
  6. Task Conflict and Relationship Conflict;
  7. Eliciting Objections;

Building Blocks In Detail

Internal Emotion Awareness & Execution

Knowing the usual emotions you go through on your own is important so you know the emotional states you are usually in. These emotions are usually the result of how well you physically take care of yourself, of internal things you are going through, like biological rhythms or issues, and of actions you take yourself.

These may involve usually being tired, impatient, having “thin skin” or others. These are usually not emotions per se, but baseline emotional states that can easily trigger certain emotions. For example, being easily irritable will cause you to have a short fuse in both personal and professional situations.

Reactive Emotion Awareness & Execution

Being aware of the emotions others cause in you is also important. While both internal and reactive emotions are your own emotions, internal emotions are caused by your own internal fluctuations, causes and origin, while reactive emotions are caused by stressors or triggers. Awareness of your reactive emotions is usually known as “knowing your triggers”.

There are several ways to do this, but you can usually tell very clearly what kind of situations upset you and under which manners. Some people are sore losers. Some people get angry with less intelligent peers. Some people become bitter and even vindictive when ignored. Knowing the reactive emotions caused in you is important so you can both avoid the triggers but also change your responses.

Projected Emotion Awareness & Execution

Having a sense of how you come across to others is important. Projected emotions are the ones you cause in others. Do you make people angry by your aggressiveness? Do you say specific things that drive people away? This is the reverse process of knowing reactive emotions – it’s knowing the emotions you trigger in others.

There are several tools to achieve this, but the end goal is to know whether you usually make people angry, nervous, whether you’re not taken seriously or too seriously, and in general, how you come across to others. For some people, this might already be obvious – for example, you might be a very negative person that people complain “brings them down” and you might be aware of it, because that’s who you are.

Or it might be a complete secret to you – you might do something that irritates a lot of the people you talk with, by being condescending or patronizing them, for example, and not even being aware of it.


Knowing your level of empathy is important to know how well you connect with others. At its simplest definition, empathy is making others feel understood by sharing their point of view or view of the world. There are many frameworks and models for empathy, but at the end of the day it’s about whether the people that interact with you feel that you truly listen and understand them, or whether they think that, on the other hand, you don’t really care about them or listen and just do what you want.

Empathy depends on different personalities and tastes. While it’s very easy to build empathy with people in a similar position – if you’ve been fired before, it’s easy to communicate with someone who is being fired and really understand their point of view – building empathy with people with different personalities and backgrounds requires a higher level of understanding, active listening and posing great questions.

Communication Tailoring

The capacity to tailor your communication to different personality types is very important in building relationships and causing good reactions instead of bad ones in the people you interact with.

The capacity to understand whether a person values facts and numbers, vivid stories and visions, or other factors is important so you can tailor your communication to prioritize understanding their core motivations. A framework like The Four Perceived Personalities helps with assessing and tailoring your communication.

Vulnerability & Defensiveness

Being vulnerable and open about your mistakes, personal stories or other elements is important in order to build empathy with specific people. It’s especially important when leading a team where you have had successes and failures they will also go through, for example.

Vulnerability is a great tool to build empathy and cause better reactions in other people. Defensiveness can also sometimes be useful. Although not usually recommended, when trying to bond or build empathy with someone that is defensive and closed by nature, being defensive can actually help build empathy with that person.

Active Listening

The capability to listen to the other person with your full attention, looking them in the eyes and showing small signs that you are listening second by second is usually called active listening. It’s a core element to many other elements, from empathy to tailoring your communication to understanding the other person’s values and motivations. How many of us have talked to somebody who didn’t even appear to listen, and that would interrupt as soon as they felt like it to give their opinion and then walk away? Active listening is the opposite of that.

There are no specific exercises to cultivate active listening except focus. More focus in every interaction you have to be more present, fully listen to what others are saying, and asking interesting questions that leverage your understanding.

Support Tools In Detail

While the following techniques are not usually considered core elements of emotional intelligence, they empower specific parts of it and can serve to help both awareness and execution.

Relationship Analysis

Doing a short analysis of your best and worst relationships will immediately tell you a lot about your capability for empathy, your projected and reactive emotions, and other elements. It might be that your best relationships are with humble, loyal people and your worst ones are with conceited, arrogant people, that make you become angry at their stupidity and arrogance.

Then you already know conceited people are a trigger and the provoked emotions are probably anger and irritation, while triggers for good emotions are loyalty and humility, probably causing a pleasant, relaxed sensation of bonding. You can also take a guess that you can build empathy more easily with down-to-earth, humble people versus excessive marketing, bragging-focused people.

Identity & Value Clarification

Clarifying what you stand for is crucial because it will significantly empower your empathy with people who share those traits. When you fight for something or stand for something, you immediately start recognizing the people that do as well, and you feel a deep identity-level bonding with them.

By being more clear on your values and motivations, you will be more clear on what is actually triggering you and why, and also what kind of people you can easily maintain relationships with, and what kind you usually can’t.


Lately, there has been a “revival” of stoical exercises and mindsets, even in executive and corporate environments. While stoicism contains many different components, in its core lies a separation of emotion and logic, and a viewing of the world and other people by a pure logical lens, detaching the emotional aspect from it.

Stoicism is a great set of mindsets and exercises for people that want to remove subjectivity from their relationships and communication, focusing on objective, logical communication, diminishing their reactive emotions by being more centered, and even their projected emotions by provoking less intense emotions in others with a more logical, centered demeanor.

Meditation & Physical Wellness

Although meditation and physical wellness don’t directly affect the emotions you both trigger and are triggered by others, they can be a valuable support tool to emotional intelligence itself, as they help establish better emotional baselines that indirectly affect all of these.

Practices like meditation help you become “present”, removing thoughts, worries, and stress, allowing you to more fully focus on the person in front of you, unlocking and empowering many other skills like empathy and active listening.

Natural/”Cosmic” Awareness

A decades-old trend that is now returning to the public is the practice of presence through connection with nature and physical environments. Although anyone will probably feel better after a run or walking in nature, specific techniques like the Japanese “forest bathing” are now being written and talked about again.

This sense of “cosmic” awareness works in many cases to make us realize how small we are, or how much bigger the universe is than us, and to help us remove ego, defensiveness and other personality traits in order to let petty things go and gain a more long-term understanding of life.

Task Conflict and Relationship Conflict

Separating task conflict from relationship is a powerful technique in conflict resolution. In short, task conflict is having a problem with an idea/concept/element, while relationship conflict is having a problem with the person.

The goal is to separate the task from the relationship, and to always have a conflict with the task and only with it.

Eliciting Objections

Although this is a framework many times used in sales, it’s important for any interaction. You will many times hear false “yes”es or false commitments due to fear of conflict or disturbing consensus. The goal is to not only anticipate objections, but to elicit them in order to turn a detractor into an ally.

Any yes that is immediate and without effort does not have much value. However, a yes resulting from having someone who initially disagreed into an ally who agrees is not only powerful, but much more authentic.

Conclusion: Towards A More Comprehensive View of Emotional Intelligence

There are several core building blocks of Emotional Intelligence and other support techniques that can help one better understand themselves and others, but at their core they are usually reduced to a capability to understand and change your internal emotions, and to understand and change the emotions you cause in others.

There are great further resources on emotional intelligence, including Goleman’s original book on the topic.

Find more of our resources on the resources page, or specifically head to articles, reports and/or interviews.

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