The difference between sympathy, empathy, and compassion

There are many opinions on what these three terms mean and how they relate to each other. Here are my thoughts. 

All three terms describe a process whereby a person can relate to the emotional state of another person. In this order—sympathy, empathy, compassion—they describe an ever-deepening level of concern and involvement.


Sympathy is a mental understanding of the plight of another person. I sympathize with the plight of starving children in Africa and with the person who has a flat tire alongside the road. I understand that it is a plight. I can sympathize without getting emotionally engaged or taking any action. I’m simply embracing facts. 


Empathy takes me deeper. Not only do I understand another person’s pain, I also feel what she is feeling. My emotions are stirred, not by what is happening in my life, but by what is happening in someone else’s life. I feel what a person is feeling.

I remember the first time I deeply empathized with someone. One day, when I was a young pastor, I visited a woman who had recently attempted suicide. As she described the painful circumstances of her life and the despair she was feeling, she began to weep. Suddenly, I began to weep. I asked myself, “Why am I weeping? My life is going quite well.” I then realized that I was weeping because I was feeling someone else’s pain, not my own.  


Compassion takes me deeper still. Building on sympathy and empathy, it compels me to become physically involved in relieving another person’s pain; it calls me to action. 

The story of the Good Samaritan illustrates the difference between sympathy, empathy, and compassion.

Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who stripped him and beat him and departed, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road, and when he saw him he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was, and when he saw him, he had compassion. He went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he set him on his own animal and brought him to an inn and took care of him. And the next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, ‘Take care of him, and whatever more you spend, I will repay you when I come back.’ Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” And Jesus said to him, “You go, and do likewise” (Luke 10:30-37, ESV).

The priest and Levite noticed the distressed man and may have even empathized with him, but they did nothing to relieve his distress. The Samaritan had compassion on the man and it moved him to act.

In reflecting on the parable of the Good Samaritan, Martin Luther King Jr. said, “I imagine that the first question the priest and Levite asked was: ‘If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?’ But by the very nature of his concern, the good Samaritan reversed the question: ‘If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?’”

I’m not suggesting that empathy and sympathy are unimportant or lacking; they are thoughtful and kind impressions. Nor am I suggesting that we must always demonstrate compassion; logistically it’s impossible to respond to every need.  

The great value of these three functions is that they divert our focus from ourselves to others. Instead of being ego-centric we focus on others and become altruistic and magnanimous. And that’s a good thing.

Sympathy says “I’m sorry your hurting.” Empathy says “I hurt with you.” Compassion says “I’ll stick around until the hurt is gone.”

Question: What are your thoughts about this essay? You can leave a comment by clicking here.

Three things every person needs: identity, community, and purpose

I recently listened to a podcast in which Sam Harris interviewed Christian Picciolini who, at age 14, became a member of a neo-Nazi white supremacy movement. After only one chance meeting with a recruiter he went from the childhood pastime of trading baseball cards to shaving his head and tattooing swastikas on his body. For the next eight years he sank deep into a culture of hate and criminal behavior.

Picciolini, now 44 years old, has dedicated his life to helping brainwashed skinheads escape from that nefarious movement. 

Based on personal experience and having worked with hundreds of troubled persons, Picciolini suggests that there are three things every human desperately needs: a wholesome sense of identity, a caring community, and purpose. Without these three assets, life is unfulfilling and we become vulnerable to unhealthy influences. 

From birth, we are on a search for three things:

A wholesome sense of identity

Picciolini says, “I never met a white supremacist who didn’t hate himself; none had a positive self-image.” Every person needs to understand who they are—a combination of nature, and nurture, and environmental influences. We need to know and accept ourselves and sense that others accept us for who we are. We need a healthy and balanced sense of self, avoiding the extremes of self-loathing and self-adulation.   

A community

Picciolini was not drawn to the neo-Nazi movement because of their ideology; in fact, he didn’t even know what they believed. He joined because “it was a group of people to hang out with.” We humans are a social species; we long to belong to a group of people. The urge is so strong that we will even tolerate an abusive community. Ideally, we will become part of a caring and healthy group.


We need a sense of purpose in life, a reason to get up every morning. We need to be engaged in meaningful activity and to sense that our days, months, and years are making a difference in the world; we’re not aimlessly drifting through life. Our purpose need not be unique or extravagant—we can’t all be a U.S. senator, astronaut, or some other exotic calling—just something simple and noble will suffice. A friend of mine is a waitress at a local restaurant. She has worked the same, simple job for ten years and she maintains a cheerful demeanor and finds satisfaction in her work.   

Picciolini also talks about the “potholes” in life that we inevitably encounter: extended unemployment, physical illness, trauma, mental illness, abuse. When we don’t have a solid sense of identity, community, and purpose, we can easily fall into a pothole and may never get out.  

Here are three applications of these thoughts: 

Individually—How would you rate yourself in these three areas? What can you do to improve or fortify these areas?

Care for others—We can be champions of these three values in the lives of others. Do you proactively help others develop these traits? 

Our children—A parent’s main responsibility is to help each child establish and solidify these areas. 

Question: What are your thoughts about this essay? You can leave a comment by clicking here.

Upon whose back is the monkey

Also - an article every dog owner will want to read

In a now-famous article titled “Management Time: Who’s Got the Monkey? (Harvard Business Review, November, 1974), authors Oncken and Wass created a clever and memorable illustration on how a person can unwittingly accept responsibility for activities that should be handled by others. 

The “monkey” is simply the next move. It is not the problem, or the project, or the goal, or the desired result; it is the next step.

Read the three scenarios below and picture a monkey leaping from the back of the direct report, teenager, and repairman to the shoulders of the boss, mom, and homeowner. Once you visualize the long-tailed primate jumping from one person to another, you’ll never forget the illustration. Since becoming aware of this phenomenon, sometimes in conversations I can almost feel the weight of a monkey as it jumps from my back onto someone else’s or from their back to mine. 

  • Imagine that you’re walking toward your office when one of your direct reports approaches and says, “I’m not sure how to handle a problem we’re having on a project.” You reply, “Let me think about it and I’ll get back with you.” The monkey is now on your back.
  • Imagine that your teenager approaches you and says, “Mom, I can’t find my baseball shirt.” You reply, “I may have put it in the washing machine, let me check.” The monkey is now on your back.
  • Imagine that you’re having some repair work done at your house and the repairman says, “I’m not sure this repair will meet city code.” You reply, “I’ll call the city and ask.” The monkey is now on your back.

I fall into this monkey-on-my-back trap often because 1) I like to do things myself, 2) sometimes I think I can do a better job at certain things than others can, and 3) I’m a people pleaser so I’m inclined to do people’s jobs for them.    

When we allow employees, children, workers, and friends to handle their own monkeys, they will grow, acquire new skills, become more responsible, and more work will get done. And we’ll have more time to do those things that only we should do and more discretionary time to enjoy life.

Here’s a copy of the article.

Question: What are your thoughts about this essay? You can leave a comment by clicking here.

Here’s an article published in the New York Times (April 29, 2018) that will warm the heart of all dog-owners (and explain to the world why we prefer dogs).

Resting face; engaged face

Recently, my adult daughter asked me, “Dad are you mad at me?” I was surprised at her question. “Of course not,” I replied, “what makes you think I’m upset?” She said, “I’m just having a hard time reading your silence and your facial expression.”

I then realized that I was displaying my “resting face,” which is, at best, difficult to read, and at worst foreboding and unfriendly. 

Some definitions will help:

Resting face – the way your face looks when you are at ease, with facial muscles relaxed. 

Engaged face – the way your face looks when you are consciously manipulating your face to appear more engaged, approachable, and friendly. I’ve also heard this called a “yes face.”

To display an engaged face, raise the eyebrows, open up the eyes, smile, and raise the forehead.

To exhibit a resting face, do nothing. 

I constantly hound my adult choir about this, reminding them that during performance their resting face is inadequate. If we’re singing a joyful text we need to look joyful. Actually, regardless of the message we’re singing, a resting face is lacking; it’s boring and unconvincing. 

I have a friend who constantly bears a pleasant expression. I asked him how he managed to maintain such an agreeable and inviting countenance. He said that it was a habit he consciously developed through the years. Now it is his default setting.

We must learn when we need to “change masks.” When I’m alone, my resting face will suffice, but when I’m in public and especially when people are looking at me, I should perk up my countenance. 

Question: What are your thoughts about this essay? You can leave a comment by clicking here.

When communicating, be succinct

In his book Presentation Zen, Garr Reynolds writes that one day, when teaching on the importance of eliminating unnecessary words when communicating, one of his students told a story that he had learned when growing up in India. 

Here’s the story.

When Vijay opened his store, he put up a sign that said: “We Sell Fresh Fish Here” His father stopped by and said that the word “We” suggests an emphasis on the seller rather than the customer, and is really not needed. So the sign was changed to “Fresh Fish Sold Here” 

His brother came by and suggested that the word “here” could be done away with—it was superfluous. Vijay agreed and changed the sign to “Fresh Fish Sold.” 

Next, his sister came along and said the sign should just say “Fresh Fish.” Clearly, it is being sold; what else would you be doing?

Later, his neighbor stopped by to congratulate him. Then he realized that all passers-by could easily tell that the fish was fresh and that mentioning the word “fresh” actually made it sound defensive as though there was room for doubt about the freshness. So, he changed the sign to just: “Fish”

As Vijay was walking back to his shop after a break he noticed that one could identify the fish from its smell from far away, even at a distance from which one could barely read the sign. He knew there was no need for the word “Fish” so he took the sign down.

When writing or speaking, particularly in a business context, use as few words as necessary. Readers are impatient and they don’t want to work harder than necessary to get your message. 

Here are examples of tightening your prose.

  • “Learning is a process that requires…” becomes “Learning requires…”
  • “They grew slack in their work for the seminar” becomes “They neglected the seminar.”
  • “In close proximity to” becomes “near.”
  • “In the majority of cases” becomes “usually.”
  • “He stayed home due to the fact that he was ill” becomes “He stayed home because he was ill.”
  • “He’ll return in the near future” becomes “He’ll return soon.”
  • “The survivors were in a desperate condition” becomes “The survivors were desperate.”
  • The theater has seating accommodation for 600” becomes “The theater seats 600.” 

How would you shorten these phrases?

  • “The aircraft had a long-range capability.”
  • “He agreed to play on an amateur basis.”
  • “At the present time…”
  • “Due to the fact that…”

If you want a severe challenge shortening a sentence, work on this: According to Wikipedia, the longest grammatically correct sentence is contained in Absalom, Absalom! by William Faulkner. The sentence is composed of 1,292 words (in the 1951 Random House version). 

A lot can be said in few words. Albert Einstein’s doctoral dissertation was only 26 pages long. When he first submitted his dissertation, it was rejected for being too short. Einstein added a single sentence and sent it back, whereupon it was accepted.

Leaders, the next time you communicate to your constituency, trim down the number of words you use and your message will be easier to understand and better received.

If you want to read one book on improving your writing skills, I recommend William Zinsser’s On Writing Well, third edition. 

Question: What are your thoughts about this essay? You can leave a comment by clicking here.

Avoid the hot stove effect

The hot-stove effect was first proffered by humorist Mark Twain.

“We should be careful to get out of an experience only the wisdom that is in it and stop there lest we be like the cat that sits down on a hot stove lid. She will never sit down on a hot stove lid again and that is well but also she will never sit down on a cold one anymore.”

Throughout life, be careful not to overreact to painful experiences. Failures, embarrassing moments, and hurtful events – if not properly processed – can have an inordinate impact on our lives and dissuade us from “jumping on the stove” again.

Carefully study and analyze your experiences and put them into proper perspective (even positive experiences, if not properly processed, can lead to unhealthy behavior).

For example:

  • You may abandon a helpful technology because your first experience with it was distasteful.
  • Some divorcees feign the thought of marrying again because of the hurt they sustained in a former marriage.
  • Not being accepted into your school of our choice may discourage you from pursuing higher education.

I have been a public speaker and teacher for 30 years, but two embarrassing moments in my early years might have derailed this aspect of my career.

When I was eight years old I was asked (with no prior notice) to stand in front of my Sunday School class and pray aloud. I froze…awkward silence ensued…kids giggled…I was embarrassed.

But the following week, one of my teachers took the time to meet with me and he spoke words of comfort and encouragement, helped me compose a written prayer, and coached me as I practiced reading it aloud in the same room where the nightmare took place. Then he arranged for me to speak the prayer in the same Sunday School Class the next Sunday. All went well and I fully recovered from the debacle.

In high school, I was vice president of my senior class. Once, when speaking before the student body, I planned on using the phrase “hook, line, and sinker,” as in, “he was so naive that he swallowed it hook, line, and sinker.” But in my speech the phrase came out “sink, line and hooker.”

My classmates were unmerciful. Unfortunately, no one helped me process what had happened; fortunately, I thought carefully about the incident by myself and decided that though it was a bad experience, it need not be a life-changing one.

A wonderful way to love others is to recognize when they may be susceptible to the hot-stove effect and then take the initiative to help them process the incident and put it into proper perspective. I will be forever grateful for my Sunday School teacher (I cannot even remember his name); he might have salvaged my future career.

Question: What are your thoughts about this essay? You can leave a comment by clicking here.

Don’t waste people’s time

Time is a precious commodity. If traded on the commodities market, its value would be incalculable. But alas, time cannot be bought or sold. And while the length of our lives varies and is unpredictable, the number of hours we have in each day is fixed.

Many books have been written on how to maximize your time. Read them and learn. You are the steward of your own time.

This essay focuses on the negative influence that people can have on other people’s time. In other words, if you want to waste your own time, that’s up to you, but don’t waste my time. Likewise, I don’t want to waste your time.

So let’s agree…

Be punctual.
If you have an appointment with someone at 1:00 p.m. and you arrive at 1:05, you have squandered five minutes of her time. To be on time you must be early; it’s nearly impossible to be precisely on time – time is moving too fast. For instance, if a meeting starts at 1:00 you can’t walk in 1:00 – that occurs in a milli-second and then becomes the past. You must arrive before 1:00.

Be organized.
When you are responsible for a project that involves other people, you must be organized or you’ll waste their time. You must predetermine what needs to be accomplished and know the quickest way to do it.

Plan ahead.
Plans exist in the future. The past is history, the present is reality. Always have a plan for what the future can look like.

Be decisive.
Often, it is wise to postpone a decision until it must be made – careful contemplation and monitoring changing variables are good reasons to delay a decision. But when a decision needs to be made, do so.

Be quick, not slow.
By and large, slow is not good. Jack Welch, former CEO of GE would ask his protégés, “Who wants to be slow?” It was a rhetorical question; I hope no one raised his or her hand. While it’s good to be thorough, careful, wise, circumspect, cautious, and deliberate – don’t be slow.

Monitor conversations and keep them on track.
When you and I are talking to each other, let’s pay attention to what we’re talking about and use our time wisely. For instance, don’t spend time talking about irrelevant topics.

A man (whom I did not know) once approached me and said, “Don, I know you lived in Austin, Texas, for a few years. Did you know a man named Ted Wallenburg?” I replied that I didn’t, but he spent the next four minutes telling me all about Ted, a man who had no connection to our lives. Why did he do that?

Also, don’t repeat yourself. When you and I are conversing, I will listen carefully and comprehend what you’re saying. I get it. So you don’t need to say it again. If I don’t understand, I’ll ask for clarification. Circular dialogue is a waste of time.

And let’s carefully consider the topics we want to discuss and allocate our time wisely. If we have only 20 minutes to converse, let’s not talk 12 minutes about an insignificant issue.

When I was 13 years old, we lived next door to an engineer whose hobby was rebuilding Volkswagen engines. One summer I served as his apprentice, so on warm summer evenings we rebuilt engines in his garage.

One of the first lessons he taught me was, “Don, try to anticipate what needs to happen next and act accordingly – hand me the right tool, fetch the next part to be installed – always be thinking two or three steps ahead in the process.”

That’s a great lesson to learn because it saves time.

Understand what can happen simultaneously and what must happen sequentially, and act accordingly.

Pay attention.
President Reagan was buried on June 11, 2004. It was a dreary, rainy day. Nancy Reagan and her family stood in the drizzling rain to watch the casket being taken from the Capitol Rotunda to the National Cathedral. A young military escort held an umbrella over Mrs. Reagan to shield her from the elements. In a moment of mental lapse, the young man allowed the umbrella to drift off to the side, exposing Nancy to the rain. She reached up, grabbed the man’s hand, and yanked the umbrella back into place.

Ouch. I can just imagine what the young man’s commanding officer might have said to him after the funeral: “Son, your only job of the day was to hold an umbrella over Mrs. Reagan. That’s not a difficult assignment. Millions of people were watching. What were you thinking?”

A Boy Scouts leader used to tell his boys, “If you are early, you are on time. If you are on time, you are late. If you are late you owe everyone ice cream.”

I like that. Don’t waste my time.

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Add margins to your life

Plus - 12 best books I read last year – book 6 of 12


You need margin to think. You need margin to play. You need margin to laugh. You need margin to dream. You need margin to have impromptu conversations. You need margin to seize unanticipated opportunities. Mark Batterson

It’s hard to walk on a narrow, straight line. There’s little room for error so even trying is stressful. Walking between two parallel lines is easier, especially if the gap between the two lines is broad.

As you walk through life, give yourself some margin.

In his book Fairness is Overrated, Tim Stevens shares these thoughts about the benefits of having margin in your life.

  • Margin makes you pleasant; no margin makes you grumpy.
  • Margin allows you to be generous; no margin makes you Scrooge-like.
  • Margin helps you listen. Without margin, you come across as someone who doesn’t care.
  • Margin gives you space to learn, grow, and dream. Without margin you become stale and empty.

We need to maintain margin in our schedule ( free time), finances (discretionary funds), emotional energy (time away from high-maintenance people and situations), and expectations (of ourselves and others).

I recently asked members of my staff why we all struggle with creating margins in life. Here are some of their responses:

  • Cell phones, social media – I’m always connected.
  • I have difficulty saying “no.”
  • Margins must be proactively scheduled/planned; I just don’t do that.
  • Boundaries help create margins; I just don’t create boundaries in my life.
  • I have unrealistic expectations of what I should produce so I’m always in hyper-productivity mode.
  • Some psychological baggage from my past makes it hard for me to slow down; in an unhealthy way, my sense of well-being is tied to my staying busy.

In a separate post, we’ll talk about “tightening up your life.” Some people have too much margin; they are unproductive and irresponsible. But this week, analyze your life in terms of margin.

Question: What are your thoughts about this essay? You can leave a comment by clicking here.

12 best books I read last year – book 6 of 12

Chasing Venus – Andrea Wulf, 2012. On two days in 1761 and 1768, astronomers observed Venus traveling across the face of the sun. They used the data to calculate the dimensions of our solar system. If you like history and science you’ll enjoy this book. Click here for more information from Amazon.