Empathy: The Way to Win Hearts and Minds in CTI

6 min readJul 20, 2022


In CTI, we strive to keep an open mind to allow us to entertain and evaluate new data, ultimately to make a determination as to whether our established analytic line changes on a certain topic — an actor’s tradecraft, motives, or if this represents a shift in the overall threat landscape. While this is a generally accepted principle, one area I have found to be dicey at times across the analytic base is interpersonal dynamics, how information is messaged, and the effects this sometimes has on overall team and organizational culture, either motivating team members to wake up and do great things daily or feeling a sense of dread in anticipation of certain interactions you may need to have during the day.

Over the past few months, I have dedicated a lot of time to thinking about this topic. What are the underpinning personality dynamics that move the needle in either direction and how teams can build trust and form cohesion in spite of some of the negative cultural drivers. I’ve been fortunate to have several friends and peers to soundboard ideas off of and through these conversations we arrived at a handful of consistent conclusions, all of which roughly boil down to the need to employ empathy whenever possible when presented with a frustrating situation.

Seeking out additional information on the surrounding context of the situation before making a decision or taking an action allows us to put time and space between the situation, providing us with the ability to regain composure before we make a potentially regrettable decision. For the intellectually curious, having a more fulsome understanding of the actual dynamics impacting the situation at hand may provide the logic and reasoning to help explain — not excuse — certain behaviors and allow us to respond better. At this point, I’d like to note that the ladder of inference is a real thing and when triggered, we need to take conscious steps to combat our visceral instincts.

At the end of the day, we only have a certain amount of fuel in our mental, emotional, and physical gas tanks and performing discovery vice responding emotionally will allow us to preserve the finite resources we have in our tank. While I plan to spend this blog post capturing some of the high points from these conversations, examining various dynamics that impact overall team culture, I cannot understate how crucial it is to understand our colleagues’ backgrounds, experiences, and life situations in order to foster a positive work culture. Employing empathy and ascribing noble intentions goes a long way towards creating an environment of trust where the team feels a sense of togetherness, builds cohesion, and feels comfortable to have open lines of communication between team members.

Communication Styles, Personalities, and Interpersonal Preferences. The most effective analysts I know are well adept at quickly identifying how clients and peers communicate during individual and group interactions and responding in kind. During this process, which usually happens instinctively, they are formulating a mental model based on the verbal and non-verbal communications they are observing and formulate inference about these behaviors and draw a conclusion on reasonable meaning. In this way, they are employing an OODA loop. Often in these cases, we project overlay our experience in dealing with certain personality types to determine an appropriate response.

One of the conversations I had was with a gentleman who holds a masters degree in behavioral psychology. He told me that accordingly to developmental psychological theory, by the time we reach age 7, we have created all of the base synapses in our brain–manifested as mental models–on how we respond to life situations. Think about that…your current adult responses are all predicated on childhood experiences. That means that every day in the professional setting we have to combat what 7 year old Johnny or Becky learned was an acceptable response to external stimuli and, in some cases, consciously fight against our instinctive responses to exhibit self-restraint and self-control.

Throughout our life, we formulate preferences and other traits that define our personality. Included as part of this individual profile is our communication style. Let’s take for instance a situation where an individual is raised in an environment where everyone in the family communicated directly about their feelings and teased each other as a form of affection. Then take an individual who was raised in an environment where feelings, emotions, or communications were reserved, physical affection or affirmation were rare or non-existent. If the two were to swap places, they would be surprised by the dynamic; it would feel foreign and perhaps elicit other responses, as well, that would color situational judgement.

In our personal lives, we get to choose the type of individuals we hang around as a self-selected bunch. As part of this, we accept their personality and communication styles. Sometimes even we may limit how often or how long we spend with them because while we are big fans, some character traits may prove to be too much for us to handle in short bursts. In the workplace, we do not have this same luxury, so instead we have to learn to adjust to our surroundings, gain a sense of what merits acceptable cultural norms, and hopefully find it to be a good fit.

For those I described in the first scenario where they were raised in an environment where direct communication is the accepted norm, there may be a propensity to inadvertently offend or accidentally make someone feel awkward by communicating directly. It may come across as brash, insensitive, or in some cases condescending. Non-verbal cues offer some recourse to help identify and correct these behaviors. This type of individual, however, expects an open feedback loop when an action they have taken or something they have said didn’t land right and accidentally crossed a line. The feedback allows them to make better future decisions.

On the other hand, let’s take the situation where an individual has grown up in an environment where feelings are not shared. These individuals may be predisposed to avoid situations in direct contrast to their learnt style, leading to friction with the more direct communicators and a preference to not speak up. Much like the direct communicator may need to focus on developing social graces and how to read the room better, this type may need to find different approaches to providing feedback. In some cases, this is a function of time and working closely to build trust enough to feel comfortable to provide the feedback.

While you and I probably fall somewhere in between these two extremes, we all have room to improve our communication ability, situational awareness, and emotional intelligence. I want to briefly hit on three other points in short order:

Intent vs. Perception. A person is defined by more than how they outwardly present themselves during a Zoom or Teams meeting, in a corporate Slack channel, and sometimes even when interacting in person. As individuals, we have more depth than what we outwardly portray and it is hard to know whether someone is going through a slump or has life circumstances affecting them consciously or otherwise during the normal grind of a workday. Over time, we develop a baseline for how our teammates communicate through verbal, non-verbal, and written communications. If something seems off, reach out, especially through written communication where tone is exceptionally hard to convey and even harder to interpret properly. Consider the potential trade-offs: it takes little effort to ask if someone is doing ok. At the very least, they say they are fine and move on. In more optimal outcomes, you have provided them with an outlet that they needed, whether they knew it or not, and just helped improve their day.

The Paradox of Expertise. In general, the more time we spend in a certain discipline, the smarter we become on the topic, able to more efficiently perform tasks and draw linkage to help us arrive at conclusions. We become one of the thought leaders — handful of individuals — that people come to for help solving or approaching various problem sets. At this point, we are confident in our abilities and likely realize our limitations, too. This is often reflective is job rank (senior vs. junior, etc.). At these higher levels, we often undertake peer mentoring responsibilities to help grow capacity across the workforce and because we have a certain sense of empathy having started in the same place as our junior staff. However, sometimes during written communications, especially in group chats, that also means we wield a certain degree of executive presence, irrespective of whether we think that of ourselves or not. Because of this, it is even more important for us to think through how we present ourselves and our opinions on topics as to not unintentionally undercut our peers and create a level of distrust.

To wrap this up, I’m a big believer in ascribing noble intent. If something seems off about diction or tone, reach out. That outreach goes a long way, perhaps more than you would assume. We all strive to be better — people, analysts, peers — so here’s to hoping this helps us collectively improve.




Strategist, cyber threat intelligence researcher, program builder, and advisor. SANS FOR578 instructor candidate.