Nadja El Fertasi on social engineering: from NATO to emotional firewalls (#23)

Since the start of COVID-19 cybercrime has increased by a staggering 600%. 

When we think of cybercrime we tend to picture a hacker dressed in a hoodie, sitting in the dark, rattling away at a keyboard. But in reality most cybercrime has nothing to do with hacking systems. In fact, 98% of cyberattacks rely on social engineering. It relies on someone manipulating you to do something (like click on a malicious link) or to divulge information (like your credit card details). 

Social engineers know how to manipulate our emotions. They have highly tuned social skills. On one hand, we can learn a lot from their social skills. On the other hand, it pays to know how to protect ourselves from social engineers with malicious intent. 

In this episode we talk to Nadja El Fertasi about what cybersecurity and social engineering can teach us about emotional intelligence. Nadja is the CEO and Founder of Thrive with EQ where she trains organisations to build emotional firewalls against social engineering attacks.  

Nadja has almost 20 years experience working at NATO, the world’s largest crisis management organisation. Her background in cybersecurity comes from her experience as a senior executive at the NATO Communications and Information Agency where she was a high value target for the cyberattacks she was working to protect NATO against. 

We hope you enjoy this informative and insightful conversation with Nadja El Fertasi

You can connect with Nadja via LinkedIn or her website.

You can listen to the episode on Apple, Google, Spotify, Stitcher or Simplecast.

Show Notes

2:16 – NATO.
6:54 – what NATO looks for in candidates.
10:01 – what is social engineering.
10:30 – how to get a free business class upgrade.
13:28 – can you learn social engineering?
15:53 – separate the behaviour from the person.
17:54 – observations instead of value judgements.
22:15 – how emotional intelligence relates to cybersecurity
30:03 – what is emotional intelligence.
33:07 – we construct emotions with the stories we tell ourselves.
37:57 – many variables impacting emotional intelligence.
44:59 – the benefits of role play for training.
51:11 – protecting yourself and your family from cyber criminals.
57:07 – How to practice empathy.
1:00:54 – type of training Nadja does.
1:04:22 – some marriage advice.
1:05:15 – don’t blame others for how you feel.
1:06:42 – hold space so other people can talk.
1:07:19 – connect with Nadja.

Links to References


Social engineering 

Australian Secret Intelligence Service: the most interesting job interview 




Mirror Neurons 



Daniel Goleman 

Values in Action Institute on Character 

Peter Saloveyfounder and director of the Yale Emotional Intelligence Centre 

Reuben Baron 

Affect vs emotion 

J. Marshall Shepherd Ted talk: “climate is personality and weather is your mood” 

Marisa Peer, world renowned therapist 


Lisa Feldman Barrett: How Emotions Are Made 

Emotional Intelligence by Daniel Goleman 

Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman 

Social Engineering: the science of human hacking by Christopher Hadnagy 

Key Quotes

“Social Engineering in itself is not something bad or good” 

“Social Engineering in itself is influencing people to get them to do what you want” 

“People with high levels of empathy…want to make people feel better after they left you” 

“When we meet someone for the first time 4 questions pop up…Who is this? What do they want from me? How long will it take? And are they a threat?” 

“Cyber criminals really put in the work in pre-texting” 

“People want to help  in general” 

“When it comes to cyber criminals….they prey on this to create emotions of trust without you even being aware” 

“20% of the global population are highly sensitive people…it means our nervous system is extremely sensitive to stimuli” 

“I was brought up to see people as human beings – not as good or bad – separate behaviours with who they are” 

“We are very quick to judge other people based on our map of the world” 

“Emotions are energy in motion – they have to flow out of you”. 

“With a remote workforce, that will remain largely hybrid, criminal minds are working at high speeds hacking people’s minds” 

“Minds are distracted due to digital overload, isolations, stress, disruption” 

“You cannot manage people, you need to guide them , lead them, inspire them, you have to help them understand what it means in their map of the world” 

“Everyone has their map of the world based on past experiences, past mental models and their upbringing”  

“Emotions are constructed and not triggered” 

“As long as you focus on technology in silo you are missing the human factors…this is why I focus on emotional intelligence”  

“Emotional Intelligence is how you deal with immediate challenges” 

“Imagine an elevator is your IQ, your EQ is your trajectory upwards” 

“So many people are working with childhood experiences, whether it is traumatic or whether one of the caregivers didn’t emotionally validate a certain environment…a child’s brain before 6 doesn’t do logic…they take it as their responsibility and then they go  on life trying to change the ending” 

“We have on average about 70 000 thoughts per day only about 5% are new” 

“A lot of men are told to be strong and to be tough from a very young age” 

“Feel the feeling, but tell yourself a new story” 

“You are not your thoughts” 

“Our brain always makes sure our bodies functional energy wise optimally” 

“The interceptor systems gives meaning to the sensation” 

“If you had a bad night of sleep your brain is working hard…the brain gives meaning to our sensations” 

“I had to re parent myself – I love a lot of people , half of which are not in my life” 

“There is no quick fix solution…life is eb and flow” 

“You need to be a deliberate thinker and not a sloppy thinker” 

“Use empathy to communicate within peoples map of the world” 

“We perceive the world through our emotional brain first before our rational brain”  

“I provide people a new lens…I focus on cyber-crime but you can apply that lens in your personal life” 

“People are the most important asset in any organisation” 

“My training is very human…I can relate…. I have been there myself…I have been targeted…I have been in burnout…in a high stress environment” 

“Usually women want to be heard, Men want to provide solutions” 

“Hold space…people often just want to be heard…you want people to feel better after they met you…this is at the heart of social engineering” 

About the author

Divan and Mark are co-hosts of the Candour Communication Podcast where we discuss interpersonal communication and all the human stuff that gets in the way.