A Business Family Stress Test - Part Two

How to smooth out stress

By Tom Hubler

Key Takeaways:

  • Stress is the friction between actual events and how a person (or family) subjectively perceives those events.
  • Sometimes circumstances can’t be changed, but we must learn to control our perceptions and responses to stressful situations.
  • The mind has three primary focuses: threat, pleasure and novelty. Surprisingly, threat is our primary focus today, even though it exists most often only in the mind.
  • Stress resilience is not simply an ability to “bounce back” but a conscious technique called “attention training.”

When your brain perceives that you are under threat, your body’s stress response kicks in. These perceptions of threat don’t have to be an encounter with a mugger or fear of losing your job. Subjective situations of almost any nature can trigger stress whenever the brain senses an imbalance of resources. Almost anything can cause you and your clients to feel stress: lack of control, lack of meaning in life or work, fear of the unknown. Stress is the friction between actual events and how one subjectively perceives those events.

Sometimes circumstances can’t be changed, but we must learn to control our perceptions of and responses to stressful situations. This resilience is not simply an ability to bounce back but a conscious technique called attention training. First, let’s look at how our brains process stress.

How the brain processes stresses

According to Amit Sood, a Mayo Clinic professor of medicine, our brains operate in two functional modes: focused and default.

  • In focused mode, we react to novel occurrences with an “undistracted presence” (i.e., “in the moment”). It could be fight or flight, pleasurable, meaningful, or some other immediate experience in the external world.
  • In default mode, the brain wonders and creates manifestations of the external world. This is the inner focus of our thoughts and reflections. Excessive internalization can create stress, anxiety, depression and even attention deficit disorder.

The mind focuses on three primary external aspects: threat, pleasure and novelty. In the modern world it might surprise you that threat is the primary focus, although threat exists most often only in the mind. But it is manifested by hurts and regrets of the past, as well as desires and fears for the future. Doctor Sood says this brooding creates “attention black holes” in the mind that take away the experiences of joy and reduce bodily energy.

To combat the attention black holes, he proposes that we use attention-training techniques to direct our attention outward—to others—where we can experience joy, happiness and fulfillment.

How to employ attention training

It’s likely too simple to say that attention training is a state of mind. Yet it essentially is. To perform this attention training, Sood suggests three actions:

  • Joyful attention. Begin each day, even before you get out of bed, by expressing gratitude for the special people in your life, such as spouse, children, parents, friends, etc. From that early moment, be conscious so that when you return home from work you treat your family as if you were meeting them after a long period of absence.
  • Kind attention. Practice caring and being kind—either directly or indirectly—to the first 20 or 30 people you encounter each day. You can express kind attention silently with a kindly look or verbally with a kind word.
  • Self-monitored intention. Become aware of how you interpret events and activities as they occur. Recognize that you are viewing these through your “normal” lens created by family and society that prejudices and constrains your interpretations and causes stress. Instead, begin viewing life through the lenses of compassion, acceptance, acknowledging a higher power, forgiveness and gratitude.

This may sound too spiritual, too fluffy or too vague, but since enrolling in Dr. Sood’s training program, I’ve noticed I’m a calmer, gentler self. I’m more even-keeled and better able to manage ups and downs in my life. Practicing his three steps of attention can help you transform your life to be far more stress-free, happy and fulfilled by investing your attention in others.

In my practice, I saw how individuals in both the Mattison and Stevens families redirected their lives and dramatically reduced their stress by investing in others. The Mattisons, paralyzed by negativity and family business issues, learned to collaborate and come to some workable solutions. Larry has created a financial exit strategy for himself and has mended fences with his daughter and son-in-law, Tim. In addition, Larry has assisted in creating of a meaningful role in the company for Tim, and family relationships have never been better.

The Stevens family has put into practice joyful attention and kind attention but has taken longer to resolve its differences. While the circumstances are now much less volatile, they have yet to fully resolve their business differences. The brothers are still upset with each other, but their relationships have strengthened. The entire family has applied the experience to produce successful family gatherings at the lake.


Stress is a killer. It’s everywhere and only gets worse if recognizing it is avoided. You can do a lot to improve your own life and the family business by practicing joyful attention, kind attention, and focusing on others with compassion, acceptance, forgiveness and gratitude. This might sound too simple. But if you practice these simple actions, I’m confident you will begin to respond to the world differently and stress will become minor in your life.

About the Author

Tom Hubler (tomh@thehublergroup.com) is president of Hubler for Business Families (hublerfamilybusiness.com) and an adjunct professor at the University of St. Thomas. He can be contacted at (612) 375-0640.