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:

How Re-writing the Golden Rule Changed My Life

I recently opted to write a chapter for a collaborative book written by a group of coaches. Depending on my thoughts about the other chapters, I may, or may not choose to promote it, but in the meantime, here is a peek at my chapter.



Like so many others, I was taught the Golden Rule when I was growing up. The meaning of “Do unto other as you would have them do unto you” seemed clear enough: treat others as you would want to be treated. So I did. I tried to treat others with the kindness and respect that I sought from others, as the Golden Rule insisted. But after a while, I also noticed a big problem with this popular guiding principle. Often, what I was doing for others didn’t match up with what I would want if the situation were reversed. I don’t particularly care for Thank You notes and I don’t need more trinkets from people, but according to the Golden Rule, that would mean I shouldn’t give them to others, either. But the truth is other people really value them.

Sure enough, after over a decade of doing my own proprietary research, collecting data, interviewing people, coaching men, women, and couples, one thing has become crystal clear: the Golden Rule isn’t always golden. Quite the opposite. If we really want to give to others, we shouldn’t treat them as we want to be treated. We should treat them as they want to be treated.

I like to call this the Platinum Rule! As individuals, we experience and receive love and appreciation in our own unique ways. What is meaningful to one person might not impact another in the same way. In my research on how marriage and entrepreneurship intertwine, the disconnect that kept cropping up between the couples I researched was due to the fact that they hadn’t communicated enough with one another. They had not discussed what they wanted and how they would like to be treated.

Several years ago, my husband started talking to me about one of his companies. I launched in, giving suggestions and trying to solve his issues, but I began to notice that the more I spoke, the less he shared. I realized that I didn’t really know what he wanted from me. Did he just want to vent? Or did he want me to be a sounding board for him to think through a dilemma that was facing him? So I asked him, “Do you want my feedback or would you prefer I just listen?” Treat others as they want to be treated. At that moment, he just needed an ear he could trust. This was a huge breakthrough for us.

A few years after that, we were working out weekend parenting agreements for our two young children. We had agreed that, on weekends, one of us would take the boys and allow the other to sleep in. Like clockwork, on my husband’s mornings, he would get the boys dressed and they’d leave the house together. I assumed he did so because he had trouble entertaining them at home. I was different: on my mornings, I kept the boys occupied at home and away from my husband.

One day, he came to me, somewhat annoyed. “Why don’t you take the boys out of the house like I do for you?” he asked.  I was surprised. I told him I didn’t need him to take the boys out for me. I used earplugs when I was sleeping and their noise didn’t bother me. But he couldn’t fully relax and fall asleep when the kids were around. Instead, he was trying to lead by example and get me to take the boys out of the house. So we changed our habits and started to give each other what the other wanted. There it is again: Treat others as they want to be treated.

In the movie Parenthood, there’s a scene with Steve Martin that has stuck with me. He’s sitting in the audience, watching his child on stage, and all he can think about is how his life is like a roller coaster. The scene sticks with me because I have often felt like my own life was a lot like a roller coaster ride. I’ve spent a lot of time wondering if there is anything I can do to ensure that the individuals I hold most dear are still on the ride with me at the end.

Take a moment and think about a roller coaster that you love. One that has twists, turns, upside down parts, and hills that make your stomach drop! Now think about your life. Who is the single most important person you want to share your life’s journey with right now. It could be a spouse, a parent, a best friend, a sibling, or a child. Imagine that individual sitting next to you in a roller coaster cart. Now imagine you’re going up the hill together. Inching up closer and closer to the top. Anxiety and anticipation are escalating.  Click after click, you start to wonder if this will be the best roller coaster you’ve ever experienced. Suddenly your companion puts their hand in front of your eyes and, no matter what you do, they won’t remove it.

How do you feel? Angry? Scared? Resentful? Anxious? Frustrated? Will you want to go on another ride with your companion after this experience? Maybe not.

Yet this is exactly how others feel when you don’t share with them what you’re thinking, feeling, or experiencing in your life. They are essentially riding a roller coaster blind—and they have no clue how to change their circumstances. As a result, the lack of communication creates dissonance between the two of you and robs you of the potential for deeper connection and joy.

I came across a podcast that suggested that one person’s failure to show gratitude can be felt as ingratitude by the other person. I call it the Gratitude Rule! When I look back on my own life, I can see that all those times that I didn’t call a friend, write a Thank You note, or buy a trinket, I had no intention to express ingratitude for those people’s roles in my life. But if this sentiment is correct, that is what was unintentionally conveyed and I can no longer be surprised that those relationships suffered. By not communicating, I had, in effect, put my hand over their eyes on our roller coaster ride through life together.

After decades of analysis, I have come to this conclusion: by combining the Gratitude Rule with the Platinum Rule, I believe we can enhance our connections and relationships with one another like never before.

In my seminars and coaching sessions, I give the following exercise: Choose two people in your personal life and two people at work. Then, ask those individuals to write down four things that you can do to show them how much they mean to you or how much you appreciate them. Then commit to doing those four things over the next month or two. After two months have passed, ask them how your actions made them feel and if they have any new suggestions for you. From this, you’ll gain valuable insight into how those around you want to be treated and how they receive acts of appreciation. And you’ll also be showing gratitude in the ways that mean the most to them.

Yet some people feel that it’s less meaningful for them if they have to ask someone for what they want, rather than the other person figuring it out on their own. If that’s you, think of it this way: if something is meaningful enough to you, it will feel wonderful no matter what, even if you had to ask for it.

That said, how you ask also matters. It’s best to come from a place of love and genuineness. Your words should not be dripping with bitterness, doubt, or contention. For example, perhaps you’d like to get some help with the laundry on a regular basis. It could easily backfire if you have attitude when you ask, “I wonder if you could help with the laundry once in a while so I don’t always have to do it.” Instead, try “You know, the part about doing the laundry that I dislike the most is __________.  Could you start helping me with that? It would really make me happy and would help a lot.” Part of what makes the Platinum Rule work so well is that it gives you a lot of latitude to be specific about exactly what you want or need to be happier. The more specific you are, the more those around you will know what to do to make you happy.

But what if you don’t know what you want? Trial and error is a wonderful thing. We are all dynamic human beings and change our minds regularly. If something doesn’t work or stops working for you, let the other person know. Say something like, “You know how I thought ___________ would help with the laundry? Actually, that didn’t seem to make a difference. Can we try _________________ instead? Thank you!”

Treat others as they want to be treated. And express gratitude in the ways that are meaningful to them. When we operate with these two mantras in mind, amazing changes can occur. This is how we open up the lines of communication without added defenses.

How does the Platinum Rule and the Gratitude Rule apply at your work place? 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. In addition to my coaching and seminars, I work with many companies to help them build rapport within the organization using the very same methods I’ve been discussing in this chapter.

Aim to make communication and appreciation simple and habitual. Eventually, you will naturally do things for those around you because you know what makes them happy. And hopefully, they will return the favor.

My hope for you is to increase your “bottom line” both at home and at your office by becoming more aware of how those in your life want to be treated—and then acting on that awareness.

If you would like to receive a free PDF of my book, “Me | You: A 52-Week Guide Toward Making Appreciation Simple and Habitual,” email me at Trisha.Harp@HarpFamilyInstitute.com. If you would prefer a hard copy, it can be purchased at http://www.lulu.com/shop/trisha-harp/me-you-a-52-week-guide-toward-making-appreciation-simple-and-habitual/paperback/product-23292942.html

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!


The Difference between Good Communication and Talking: Skills to Master

Good communication . . . it’s a phrase everyone uses to describe a good relationship. Many of us believe we are good enough communicators that we don’t really need to work on this skill any longer. After all, we’ve been talking since we were around 2! So how does good communication differ from just talking about things?

First, good communication skills include mastering not just the art of talking, but the art of listening. A good communicator spends most of their time listening to the other person and trying to get inside their mind. What are they trying to say? Why are they saying it with that tone, those words, that facial expression? If I were trying to say the same thing, how would I say it?

After you have thought through each of these questions, the next step is to mirror their words and ask if you’re interpreting their sentiment correctly. Take the idea, ‘if I were trying to say the same thing, how would I say it?’ Then actually, put what you think they’re trying to say in your own words and say, “So, if I’m hearing you correctly, you’re saying . . .  Is that correct?”

If you’re wrong, ask them to say it again, perhaps using different words. Assure them you really want to solve the issue and hear what they’re saying. The more your partner believes you care about what they are thinking and feeling, the more likely you are to better understand each other and communicate effectively.

So, the number one trick to better communicating. . . listening!

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.

What to expect from my 6 session Coaching Practice

My preference is to have my coaching clients commit to at least 6 sessions. Each session may last longer than 1 hour depending on the needs of my clients. The sessions include a significant amount of work outside our discussions from both myself and my clients. Each person will receive their own copy of my workbook.
1. The first component includes:
Talking with each of you individually and creating a vision statement for each of you. This will help me to assess where you are in your personal thoughts and goals for the future before we start to outline a joint vision.
Homework: Complete each of the exercises in the Re-connecting section in the workbook
2. The second component includes:
a. A short individual discussion to review your vision statement and your comfort level with sharing with your partner
b. Discussion about core values and where/how they originated
Homework: Compete the starter questions & Risk tolerance in the Sharing more information section of the workbook
3. The third component includes:
Discussion about how you have decided to share information about the business etc. with each other
Homework: Complete the blueprint (individually and a joint one and the GOAL model for one specific goal. Goal can be for either of you)  in the Shared vision section of the workbook
4. The fourth component includes:
Discussion about your joint goals and your plans to accomplish your goals.
Homework: Complete the 5:1 ratio and love notes in the Deeply appreciating section of the workbook
5. The fifth component includes:
Discussion about how it felt to be truly appreciated, what worked, what didn’t. What made a difference and how did it feel?
Homework: Identify your inner language, and come up with a de-triggering word or phrase
6. The sixth component includes:
Discussion about understanding the way your partner shares information and modeling their mode of communication. Practice de-escalation techniques and ways to express frustration in a more effective and less hurtful manner. Ways to recognize when you are being hurtful and how to apologize/overcome that.
Homework: Complete the other exercises in the workbook. Practice de-escalation and de-triggering words. Join my monthly call. During  date night, use a book like, “My wish for you is _______” to generate discussion topics.
The goal is that by the end of the 6 sessions – you will
1. Have a better idea of more effective ways to communicate with one another
2. Have a clear and direct vision for yourselves as individuals and as a couple looking forward to your future
3. Better understand each others histories which can lead to greater compassion toward perceived flaws and a desire to improve upon said flaws!
4. Have a management tool you can reflect upon when working toward certain future goals.
5. Have a workbook filled with thoughts and ideas that you can re-read whenever you need a refresher.
6. Open the lines of communication regarding a myriad of topics surrounding both personal and business issues.
7. Learn ways to share your thoughts / feelings with your partner in the most compassionate way possible.