We are emotional beings

In all my work I assume that humans are emotional beings, not rational beings.  The basis for Observational Listening and Informed Compassion (two other terms I have coined) is an integrated emotion model, dubbed the Dynamic Triangular Model Situation-Emotion-Behaviour, see the figure above. The model is based on existing emotion theories, learning processes and the biology of emotion. The model provides a new synthesis which gives a better explanation why people behave the way they do. In a nutshell: You experience an emotion (as the result of perceiving a situation), your brain processes this emotion and you act according to your interpretation of that emotion.

Let’s flesh it out a little. An external event (a situation or your reaction to it)  triggers basic emotional reflexes via your senses. The combination and intensity of these basic emotional reflexes leads to a physical reaction (via LeDoux’ quick-and-dirty route) and is experienced as a feeling. The constant change in the feelings experienced are part and parcel of a dynamic emotional landscape.

The three learning processes: Emotional learning, behavioural learning and social learning

Memory underpins all aspects of the model.  The basic emotional reflexes are stored as scripts in your memory as are your skills and all information you require to give meaning to your emotion. All of this was once committed to your memory via the three learning processes: Emotional learning (or classical conditioning), behavioural learning (or operant conditioning) and social learning. Everything you now experience is also committed to memory using the same three learning processes.

Emotional learning

The link between a situation and the emotion experienced in that situation is stored in your memory via the (unconscious) emotional learning process. It is simultaneously ‘remembered’ in the cells of your body via the action of  neuropeptides. The memory affects both the emotional reflex scripts, the (intensity of) the bodily reaction and how you give meaning to those bodily reactions.

Behavioural learning and social learning

If the situation draws out a sufficiently intense feeling to attract your attention, more profound processing takes place via the cognitions. Both the situation and the feeling it elicits are consciously processed in an exchange with memory. This interpretation affects your learning via behavioural learning and social learning on a more conscious level: You notice the consequences of certain actions and commit this link to memory. What you have learned may also adjust your emotional scripts and is ready to be (automatically) used the next time a similar situation arises.


The interpretation of the emotion determines your reaction to the situation, that is: Your behaviour. The choice how to react is largely unconscious and only sometimes based on a conscious decision. I choose to define behaviour broadly: Everything that requires some form of consciousness and may be described by a verb. Thinking about something is also behaviour according to this definition, as is shouting, walking, etcetera.

If a situation is important enough (the intensity of the emotions tell you when that is so) and you have the time and opportunity to reflect, you may make a conscious decision on how to behave in a certain situation. In all other cases (probably more than 95% of the time) you act on the automatic pilot. Also what you do on the automatic pilot was once learned. Memory is therefore a crucial element in the interpretation and processing of emotion. 

Social and psychological emotion regulation

You therefore consciously or unconsciously choose how to react to a given situation. The choice is made in an interaction between memory (where  all your (behavioural) skills are stored) and your social emotion regulation system. This system is also stored in memory and is based on the (cultural) values and norms you have internalised during your life.  The social emotion regulation system helps you choose whether to express your emotion (via behaviour) or suppress it. Simultaneously your psychological emotion regulation system may cause you to revalue the emotion, again in interaction with memory: You thereby may change the meaning of an emotion, for example for self-protection purposes.

Whatever you consciously or unconsciously choose to do, your reaction to the situation is behaviour and that behaviour will elicit a reaction from the social environment so that a new situation arises. This completes the circle: basic emotional reflexes are triggered – leading to a feeling – via scripts to the experience of an emotion – interpretation of that emotion – choice how to react – actual reaction (behaviour) – response to that behaviour (new situation).


Your behaviour doesn’t only affect the environment, it also has an effect on yourself known as self-perception. You draw conclusions from your own behaviour and those conclusions trigger basic emotional reflexes, thereby also altering the way you percieve a situation. Also when you reminsce about a previous event (from memory) – even if you’re sitting quietly on your own – just like then the basic emotional reflexes are triggered. In other words, if you actually experience a situation or imagine it, the efect is similar: It leads to experiencing an emotion.

Emotions inform you that you’re alive

The Dynamic Triangular Model Situation-Emotion-Behaviour can explain some things other theories cannot do. For example, people don’t always follow what behavioural science predicts they will do, take chronic ineffective behaviour as an example. Emotions provide the missing link. The model shows how emotions are constantly being experienced and how they constantly change – emotional experience is dynamic. Thanks to your emotions you know you’re alive – without emotions you would vegetate.  These emotions activate you, motivate you and whatever you do this leads to experiencing of an emotion. This means the mere experience of having an emotion is intrinsically rewarding, which makes you want to experience that emotion again: It means you’re alive!