What is the Difference Between Sympathy and Empathy? 2 of 3

I recently wrote a blog post about listening with empathy while maintaining your sanity. But how can you do that if you don’t really understand the difference between sympathy and empathy? So let’s take a moment to define them both and garner a better understanding of how they can apply to your life.

The Dictionary definition of the word Empathy means: the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.

While the Dictionary definition of the word Sympathy means: feelings of pity and sorrow for someone else’s misfortune.

So, as a practitioner who just shared how I am able to empathize with someone while maintaining an emotional distance, you may be asking how I can do that while sharing the feelings of another person? In order to understand and share the feelings of another person, you most likely have to have experienced those feelings yourself at some point in time in your life. Most people experience many of the same emotional ups and downs throughout their life, whether it’s an argument with a family member, friend or co-worker, frustrations over being overlooked for a promotion or a job, feelings of insecurity and inadequacy, ultimately, most of the emotions we experience as individuals are ubiquitous.

As a result, when a client shares with me about something going on in their life, I am most likely able to draw on an experience I have had and share with them the details about that experience. I am able to convey the way I felt about my own situation and how I dealt with it. This is empathy. Having the ability to understand and then share in the feelings of others. I don’t have to take on their emotional state to recognize and validate what they are going through. But I can help them to realize they aren’t alone in their feelings and experiences.

Between the ability to express themselves fully, answer pointed questions I ask, and absorb what they are able to take from my own experiences, my clients often leave our sessions feeling heard. Feeling valued. Feeling like they understand their next steps.

When someone experiences something truly tragic, like the loss of a partner or child, the depth of this emotion is not something I would ever imagine to fully share and understand. Thus, I can offer empathy through the loss of my dad, but merely sympathy regarding their own personal loss. Gratefully, I haven’t had to experience such loss or pain in my life. Sometimes sympathy is all someone needs to get through the day. They need a shoulder to cry on. A hug so hard they remember they are still alive. An ear to bend. They don’t need empathy from you. They don’t need you to talk. They just need you to listen or to just be. They just need you.

The acts of empathy and sympathy can be difficult for some people. It doesn’t come naturally to everyone. My next blog entry on this topic will address simple, but effective things you can do to express empathy or sympathy that will help make the other person feel supported.

Exercise: How to Listen with Empathy But Keep Yourself Sane 1 of 3

As a trained listener, it can become overwhelming to hear about people’s issues all day long. It’s a learned skill that practitioners hone throughout the years; how to listen with empathy and feeling, all the while, not taking on others’ emotional state. This is a skill that I have found has benefitted me throughout EVERY area of my life. Being married to an entrepreneur, my husband can go through as many as 50 highs and lows in any given day. My favorite saying about the roller coaster ride of life is, “I’m killing it! It’s killing me!” We’ve all had days, weeks, months, maybe even years where we feel this way on a regular basis. So how can we learn to ride our own roller coaster without hopping on board someone else’s ride as well?
1. One thing I do is spend a bit of time each day to identify my own frame of mind. How am I feeling that day as a whole? Am I happy, sad, frustrated, tired, energized, moody, light, dark, or just in a state of ok? Once I have assessed my own general emotional state, I acknowledge it and try to do things to either change it (if I want) or sit with it because I know that whatever mood I’m in today will likely be different tomorrow.
2. During the day, as I interact with other people and things, I make a conscious effort to listen with my head, not with my heart. Of course I will get teary if I hear something especially sad or happy, but I still maintain a bit of emotional distance for my own sanity. That may sound cold, but in reality, it’s not. All people have their own “stuff”. I don’t need to take on their “stuff” on top of my own. But that doesn’t mean I can’t be there for them. In fact, I would argue, because of this skill, I can actually be there for others to a greater degree.
3. Deep breaths. . . we all know that taking a deep breath and counting to 10 is a great way to de-escalate the body and center oneself. When practicing how not to take on other people’s emotional states, breathing is major!! Let’s use my children for an example. I used to consider myself a bit of a master in the art of staying calm and patient. After all, I spent decades working with individuals with developmental disabilities and had to stay calm and aware at all times or else I could exacerbate an already sticky situation. I will be the first to admit, my ability to separate my own emotional state certainly has waned a bit since having my second child. This is NOT an easy skill to learn, no less master. But with everything, practice makes . . . well maybe not perfect, but certainly improvement! So each time my kids fight, whine, freak out etc., while I want to fight back, whine back or freak out with them, I take that deep breath (and sometimes count to 20 or 30!) before I respond to them.
4. Awareness: When you are aware of your own emotional state, you can learn to control it. I don’t want to be angry when my kids whine, I don’t want to get freaked out when something goes wrong with my husband’s business, I don’t want to feel frustrated when a client of mine expresses frustration with something in their life. It does no one around me any good if I mimic their state of being. So I practice. I practice regular awareness of my own emotional state. And when I feel it start to wane or go somewhere I don’t want it to go, I reign myself back to me. I take deep breaths. I remember that when I stay calm, those around me are more likely to get what they need from me. I am more effective. I am in control of me.
5. So what I would love for you to take away from this is that you are in control of you. You control your mind. You control your heart. You control your reactions. Please do not think that because of the style in which this is written that I believe it is easy to accomplish. It’s not. At all. Honestly, it’s a lifelong journey. But it can change your life when you start to become aware of your own power to control yourself and the way you react to the people and situations you encounter on a daily basis.
So take a moment to identify your current emotional state. Sit with it and acknowledge it and embrace it. When you find yourself reacting to someone else’s emotional state, ask yourself if this is the reaction you want to have, or can you just go back to feeling like you again? Become aware of how your moods change based on the people and situations you find yourself in. Decide how you want to feel and react. Take deep breaths until you feel more in control again. Separate yourself emotionally from the situation. Then respond in the way that best suits you. Chances are, this will also be a way that best suits the person you’re connecting with.
Look for other blog posts on the subject of empathy:

Does Money Buy Happiness: The Entrepreneur’s Conundrum

As the Beatles song clearly states, “money can’t buy me love”. Ok we get that, but can it buy happiness? As an entrepreneur, a significant part of the end goal of any venture is money. Whether the goal is just to make enough to survive and provide for your family, or whether the goal is to exit your company and become independently wealthy, either way, money obviously plays a role in every business owner’s endeavor. But does it buy happiness?

Researchers have been looking at this question for decades and from several different angles. In 2010 researchers at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School published the results of a study that found when someone makes over 75K a year, their happiness index doesn’t change as their income increases.

In my own, Harp Family Institute research, I used a different financial measurement and discovered similar results, but with a 100K income.

So, the question is, how, as entrepreneurs can we reconcile all the hours of hard work, the stress that comes with being the boss, the potential loss of family and friends around you due to the blinders you put on in your quest for an extraordinary life?

One answer is that at an entrepreneur’s core, the quest for happiness (as other’s define it) is not your ultimate end goal in life. There is something deeper in your soul that drives you. Is it respect? Is it power? Is it knowledge? Is it the desire to leave a legacy? The answer is not a simple one and perhaps it’s a combination of a multitude of factors, but one thing is for sure, the quest for happiness is not the number one motivator within an entrepreneur.

When I first met my husband, I made a comment about how content I was was. His response to my comment shocked (and dismayed) me. He said, “That must be nice. I don’t know if I’ve ever been truly content.” We went on to discuss this in detail, but at the end of the day, he generally always feels more can be done, and thus, feels a sense of discontentment at all times.

About a decade later, I was interviewing a man with a net worth of roughly 300M. I asked him the question, “What does it feel like to have ‘made it’?” His response also shocked me. He told me that an entrepreneur has never really made it, regardless of how much money they have, because there is always something more to do. They are always thinking about what else they can do . . .

I add the ellipsis at the end of the sentence because this is how I now view the true entrepreneur, there isn’t an end. Going out and getting a job that pays $75K IS NOT AN OPTION. Not because it’s not enough money to survive, but because the job, as millions of people around the world view it, isn’t even going to begin to scratch the itch of a true entrepreneur.

They need more. They crave more. In their souls, the drive, or as my dad used to call it, the fire in their bellies, isn’t really motivated by money, but by something much deeper. Money is merely the icing on the cake. It’s what people see. What people attribute to business ownership. Don’t get me wrong, having money is great. It’s amazing to be able to do and implement what you conceive of.

But for entrepreneurs, it’s about so much more . . .

Me | You A 52 Week Guide Toward Making Appreciation Simple and Habitual at the Office

If you read my previous blog post, after I published the first book, I thought, why stop with marital relationships. . . let’s bring it to the office! After all, research shows that when a business incorporates a value-based recognition system—a program that specifies ways to show appreciation for its employees’ work and contributions—there is less turnover, higher employee engagement, and an increase in the bottom line. So I made one to try out at your office as well!

Coming soon: Sex and Intimacy
Parents and Children



Me | You A 52 Week Guide Toward Making Appreciation Simple and Habitual

I was talking with a friend a few months ago about someone who is married to a wonderful man who is on the autism spectrum. She mentioned that her friend has to give very clear directives to her husband. For example, the day before her birthday she may say, “Tomorrow is my birthday. I would like a piece of jewelry, a cake with a candle and a great kiss!” I looked at my friend and said, “Wouldn’t it be great if we all asked for things that clearly?”

Sooooo, I wrote a book that encourages couples to

1. Do things for each other they wouldn’t necessarily do without prompting.

2. Teaches couples more about what really resonates with their partners and what doesn’t.


3. Hopefully eradicates the potential defensiveness that comes with nagging!

Check it out and tell me what you think!


The Importance of Viewing Your Marriage from a Team Perspective

When we get married, the idea (or hope, or goal) is that we no longer feel alone. Regardless of the ups and downs that time may present, you have a partner, a confidant, a teammate every step of the way. Perhaps you may not always agree on an issue or a decision you have to make, but the concept that you are a team, first and foremost will help guide you through the challenge of your disagreement.

For example, some friends of mine were struggling with a variety of issues, including some parenting decisions. They found themselves constantly fighting, so they decided to go for therapy. One afternoon (several session in) the therapist stopped them mid-fight and said, “STOP!! Just stop! You’re on the same team here. . . the same side.” Just hearing those words sent ‘aha’ shock waves through them. They were able to re-convene their discussion from the perspective of, ‘at the end of the day, we both want what’s best for our child,’ thus we ARE on the same team. It was amazing how well they worked together to come up with possible solutions vs. fighting each other and making the other feel a need for defiance.

As entrepreneurs, at the office, typically, what you say . . . goes. But you didn’t get married to be the boss of your spouse. . . you are equal partners. Sometimes it is difficult to step back from your role as the boss and accept that you are equal partners in your home life.

It can be equally as challenging for a spouse who has become accustomed to deferring to the entrepreneur to find/ hold on to his/her own voice. We will continue this thread throughout other blog entries, but the foundation to all of this is the consistency of acknowledgement that you are on the same team.

Finding “Alone” Time: How to uncover it, embrace it and hold on to it

This morning I was talking with a friend about the elusive luxury of time. Between work, business ownership, family, friends, volunteer endeavors and everything in between, sometimes just finding 5 minutes of time to oneself seems nearly impossible. Below are a few tips on how to find, embrace and hold on to a few minutes of time alone.

1. One way to get some more alone time is to simply ask for it. Maybe it seems simple or maybe it seems incredibly hard to be a little selfish, but we all need it, crave it and want it. When you’re in a partnership with someone else, whether at the office or at home, simply saying the words, “I think I/we would benefit from figuring out how to create some alone time for me. Lately I’ve been feeling _______, and I think I just need to take some more time for myself.” Then, work together to make that happen. (Below are some ideas you can implement.)

2.  If you have children, plan for some extra time to sleep in one weekend day each week. Trade off with your partner. For example, you get Saturday until 12 to yourself and your partner gets Sunday until 12 to his/herself. That way you can stay up a bit late the night before nine watching your favorite tv show. . . guilt free!

3. Take a bath/shower. . . alone! Growing up, my mom used to lock herself in the bathroom for what felt like forever (it was probably more like an hour) to take a bath. She would come out looking like a lobster, but she was always calmer and more relaxed afterwards. Be sure to lock the door and get support from your partner so you don’t get any surprise visitors!

4. During your day, find between 5 – 15 minutes to just close your eyes and breathe. If you can’t close an office door, go out to your car and put the seat back. If you’re afraid you are going to fall asleep, set an alarm on your phone. Just resting the mind for a few minutes each day helps decrease anxiety and increase productivity.

5. Before you walk in the door at the end of your work day, spend 5 minutes in the car thinking about something you love about what’s waiting inside for you. (Your spouse, your children, a hug, a beer, a glass of wine, your favorite tv show on the DVR etc.) Allow yourself to smile and loosen the muscles in your face. Regardless of the wonderful or miserable day you have just had, taking those 5 minutes to “pre” appreciate your home life will work wonders toward feeling a little more at peace.

6. Hire a “young” babysitter on the weekend to offer some relief. Put the feelers out that you’re looking for a “mommy’s helper”. This is generally someone age 9 – 14 who will come and play with your children while you are home. This is a great way to get some extra time on the weekends to do what you want . . . and bonus. . . they usually only charge $5 – $7 an hour. Sometimes one hour is all you need.

7. When you do find some time, don’t fill it with something you hate doing. . . like laundry. Give yourself permission to be carefree for a while. Do what you love. Paint, scrapbook, play a video game, read, watch tv, rest, whatever feeds your soul. The dishes and laundry can wait. They just can. Taking care of yourself CAN’T!


Entrepreneurs and Spouses: How to ensure you are a team . . . always

I was talking with a couple the other day about division of labor with regard to handing their personal “business”. They are recently married and prior to their nuptials, Sam* (names have been changed) owned a couple of rental properties. They have been working on trying to turn over the properties to his wife Sally*, but it has not gone particularly well.

Initially, they decided to hire a property manager with the hope and expectation that Sally would learn from her and eventually be able to manage them herself. Unfortunately, Sally and the property manager do not get along well at all. Sally spent some time looking for someone to take her place, but was only able to identify companies that charged twice the price. Eventually, Sam got frustrated, so he took back over the task of working with the property manager and Sally hasn’t been helping out with that part of their lives. Over time, this has left both Sam and Sally resentful of each other with regard to this topic. So we got to the bottom of it and came up with a plan.

First, it was important for Sam to acknowledge that Sally really does want to contribute and take more things off of his plate. To put it bluntly, sometimes women just don’t work well with other women. There, I said it!! I felt it was essential for him to recognize that it was a possibility the property manager just responded better to working with a man; and regardless of where things ended up with our “plan” it might still not be a good fit between Sally and the property manager.

Second, we decided that for the next two months, both Sally and Sam would work together with her. That way Sally could watch the way Sam interacted with her and hopefully continue that pattern after Sam was weaned off. Initially, she wouldn’t talk very much, just listen and observe. After the first month, she could start to re-establish her own relationship with the property manager, but Sam would still be involved.

Third, after 2 months, Sam would turn over the project to Sally and she would try to work with and learn from the property manager for an additional 6 months. If it worked out, great. If not, then together they would work to find a replacement.

Two major outcomes came out of this discussion. 

1. They will set aside 2-3 hours of time each week to work in tandem with each other. Sam will work on whatever he needs to work on for his business, but because they will be in the same vicinity of each other, whenever Sally “needs” Sam for something, he will drop what he is doing and be fully available to Sally. This way, she isn’t saying randomly throughout the week, “I need you to call xxx”. She can set up the call and he will be there to help. This takes the responsibility off his crazy full entrepreneurial plate, but enables her to accomplish tasks she can’t do without him.

2.  I pointed out to Sam, that by “taking back over” the property management account and making Sally feel inadequate because she didn’t work well with the property manager, he, for lack of a better phrase, hurt her feelings. He didn’t have her back. He didn’t show her, “we’re on the same team.” During the discussion, both Sam and Sally had an ‘aha’ moment. I don’t even think Sally realized that her feelings were hurt, but they definitely were. What she heard was, “the property manager is more important than you”. Of course that’s not what Sam was intending to convey, but that’s what was heard. In marriage, and more importantly and entrepreneurial marriage the underlying foundation has to always be, “Team Sam and Sally” or “Us vs Them” or whatever works for you and your relationship.

The plan we outlined above, recognizes that both Sam and Sally are vital to the success of their “personal business” and has them working together as a team!


Do We Need Therapy? Suggestions for an Otherwise Happy Couple: Entrepreneurship

“I went to a therapist the other day, but I don’t think he really understood my dilemma because he wasn’t an entrepreneur.” These are words my friend shared the other day was she was lamenting the change in her home situation. Her husband has been an entrepreneur for as long as we’ve known each other. Recently, however, he just started a new venture and it’s like they’re starting back at the beginning again. She is a hard working attorney with her own daily challenges. They are an amazing couple and don’t really need “therapy” in my opinion. What they need are new tools to help positively shape their communication moving forward. The “old way” their house, family and relationship worked just isn’t going to cut it any longer. Sometimes it’s hard to establish new patterns, but they are necessary if you want to maintain and build upon your relationship. Here were my initial suggestions to her.

  1. 1. Every business holds a weekly staff meeting. Establish one at home as well. Each week, get the family together, and create an agenda so each person has an opportunity to share where they are with the items that are most important to them.
  2. 2. Put a “Shit That Matters” notebook in an accessible place (like the kitchen). Throughout the week, document important thoughts in the book you fear you will forget, but want to recall when the time is right.
  3. 3. Figure out 1 to 2 times a week to take a “walk and talk”. Set aside a minimum of 30 minutes. Determine ahead of time who can dominate the discussion and what the topic will revolve around. Audiotape the chat if you want to remember certain points made during the walk.
  4. 4. Embrace new habits. We’ve all heard the line, “when you’re on your deathbed, will you say, ‘I wish I worked more’?” Probably not. Different times in an entrepreneurs life will inevitably call for greater sacrifices from his/her family. Along the way, though, it’s critical to be flexible, talk as much as humanly possible, and embrace new habits that work for everyone impacted by the business.
  5. 5. Self Plug: Join my monthly call to get support, thoughts and suggestions from myself and other entrepreneurs, business owners, spouses, co-preneurs and individuals in high intensity positions.

    Nobody on their deathbed ever said, "I wish I had spend more time at the office." But for an entrepreneur, sometimes you have to.
    Nobody on their deathbed ever said, “I wish I had spend more time at the office.” But for an entrepreneur, sometimes you have to.

Quotes for Inspiring Greatness

I recently started to think about my presentation from a new perspective. What is it missing? How can I improve my message? I started looking up ways to inspire greatness today and these two resonated with me.

Dale Carnegie:
“Give the other person a fine reputation to live up to.”

Ken Kesey:
“You don’t lead by pointing and telling people some place to go. You lead by going to that place and making a case.”

My husband is often telling the kids what a wonderful mother they have. He compliments me all the time and points out to them the specifics of what makes me great. It often makes me feel uncomfortable (while at the same time I love it)! The discomfort, I believe, comes from my wondering if he really means what he is saying. Or, is it possible, all this time he has been giving me a “fine reputation to live up to”?!! Perhaps it’s a bit of both. Either way, it certainly motivates me to be a better mother and wife so I suppose it’s a win win regardless of how I look at it.

The second quote resonated because while I do a lot of speeches and include a lot of personal anecdotes, I never fully share my personal story with people. When I was rebuilding my website, a friend encouraged me to share more of my story. I’ve been there, done that, seen that with regard to entrepreneurship from a child’s perspective, a spousal perspective and now a personal perspective. I’ve been up. . .  way up and I’ve been down . . . way down. Maybe if I lead by revealing that I’ve gone to “that place” then I will inspire greatness among those who hear my story.