Notes from the Celebration of Life for Doug Silsbee

Doug Silsbee’s Celebration of Life happened on Sunday, August 12 at 4:00 PM ET. There were over 120 people in attendance, sitting or standing outside the Pavilion at Bend of Ivy Lodge. People gathered who knew or love Doug or whose lives and growth were touched by Doug’s writing or teaching about the Presence-Based Coaching or Leadership work. This included former clients, many PBC students, work colleagues from recent or early days, fellow travel adventurers, collaborators and co-teachers, as well as folks from the Asheville community, and of course, his family.

The weather was lovely (if a bit humid) and many shared poignant stories or experiences with Doug. I was asked to speak on Doug’s work in the world. Below are my thoughts about Doug, and I offer them here in the hopes that it might resonate with your experience of Doug, help you to feel a part of that event, or spur you to take some time to reflect on your own version of Doug’s impact on you.

I want to say a heart-felt thank you and acknowledgement of all who have reached out with kind and comforting words of condolence and care around Doug’s passing. If I haven’t responded to you each individually, know that I am reading each note or email, and I am reminded of my gratitude for this community!

My thoughts on Doug and his work in the world…

Let’s take what Doug might call a “presence pause” right now, to notice where we are in this moment — in community – noticing the holding of this land – knowing we are all connected.

Three things about Doug:

• Brilliant Mind
• Big and Beautiful Heart
• Doug’s emBODY-ment of Presence

Brilliant Mind

Doug had many, many interests, passions and lucky for us, these interests seeped their way into the Presence-Based Coaching and Leadership (PBC and PBL) work that Doug founded. From his love of icebergs, to interpersonal neurobiology, to the cosmos, to his invented word: Experiential Neuroplasticity.

Doug was a master teacher and synthesizer; and blended many seemingly diverse streams of thought and knowledge to create coaching and leadership tools that are simple, accessible and practical.

And of course, many of you know that Doug is the author of 3 cutting edge books on mindfulness and presence. Doug is widely viewed in Coaching and Leadership circles as an expert and thought leader on these two topics.

Doug was deeply curious, loved to learn, create and experiment, and the perspective he held was very BIG (and he sought out and loved hearing other perspectives). His love of planets and stars and galaxies showed up in a favorite exercise in PBC, he called “the Grand Tour.” (Did I mention Doug was also a great storyteller?) This exercise helped students experience and consider the BIGness of this universe and in that way, helped them to create some new perspectives about who they might aspire to be, what was truly important.

Big and Beautiful Heart

We know that Doug had a HUGE heart, and was regularly brought to tears when his heart was touched by someone or something that he cared about.

There has been an unbelievable outpouring of expressions of gratitude and remembrance of the impact Doug or this work has had on many, many people over the years. And, Doug had a huge impact on me personally and professionally, and on my development as a human.

I remember when I first came to Bend of Ivy lodge for that first PBC I training in 2009. As soon as Doug started talking, I knew he was going to be a teacher for me. His blend of caring, humor, rigor, presence and skill spoke to me right away. And his seeing of me and my heart (and the hearts of all of his students, clients, colleagues and of many people gathered here), was transformational.

He was an incredible mentor to me and a champion of my growth…when I started teaching with him, he had this knack of asking me to stretch just beyond my comfort zone, all the while conveying his sense of certainty I could do it.

I treasure the sweet, creative collaboration and teaching flow that evolved in our relationship over the years, around the curriculum of PBC and in the business.

And, Doug loved to collaborate with others. Many in this gathering (Sarah Halley, Luckett Davidson, and Carolyn Coughlin [who is on a mountaintop in Wyoming]) were privileged to work with him closely around the evolution of this work. And he had many Coaching and Leadership Development colleagues that he enjoyed close relationships with that, in his words, “nourished him.”

Embodied Presence

Doug was an avid outdoors-man and traveler, wilderness adventurer and lover of nature. He was one of the most generative and generous people I know, and he could build or fix almost anything (personally, I relied on him for his master excel spreadsheet skills!).

Doug was a pioneer in recognizing the importance of and integrating the body into coaching work. And the unique and powerful blend that is Presence-Based Coaching and Leadership is a direct reflection of both his passions and the collaboration of those teaching with him and those students receiving the teaching.

His tradition, before we started each retreat/training, was to take a moment (a “presence pause”), face each other, and ask each other: “Why are we doing this?” as a way of orienting to our purpose.

Doug was in touch with a deep sense of presence and of being located in the present moment, and his very being reminded those around him of the importance of right now as the only moment we ever really have.

Doug was transparent about his inner work and struggles in life. He continued to offer a beautiful teaching as he traveled in his journey with cancer, and both he and Walker were very open, conscious, and real about what they were going through. We are all grateful!

As I said, Doug never lost sight of WHY we were doing the work – the bigger picture of care and concern for people, the environment, and the planet.

I’ll end with this quote from December 2017 in Doug’s virtual Nine-Panes Practice Lab class, teaching about his new book, Presence-Based Leadership:

I want to make sure that we’re not just working with these distinctions of sensing, being, and acting as an exercise in awareness or consciousness. This is not solely about self-actualization, or even primarily about self-actualization.

“It’s about contribution, it’s about what commitments we’re living in in the world. And then how do we begin to organize internally in order to fulfill on those commitments. In this work it’s more important to me that this work be in service to making a difference in an extraordinary time in human history, than that we all feel good about ourselves and be happy. If that happens that’s great, but that’s not the purpose of the work.

“So I want to always be connecting the macro-level of how do we act skillfully in the world, and how do we support others to act skillfully in the world with the consciousness work, and the awareness work that enables that to happen…

As I said at the beginning, Brilliant mind, Big and Beautiful Heart, Embodied Presence. Gratitude to you, Doug, with a bow.

Watch the video below of the releasing of bio-degradable lanterns into the night sky by the pond to the sounds of Beethoven (Doug’s favorite) at Doug’s celebration.

Please feel free to express below any experience with Doug or this work that you’d like to share.

A Video Interview with Bebe Hansen…

About her journey, coaching skills, and the PBC transition

In this lovely interview with Rod Francis in June 2018, Bebe Hansen, recently named Principal of Presence-Based Coaching, shares her personal and professional journey into coaching, talks about some key coaching skills and practices that support learning and change, and a bit about the Presence-Based Coaching transition.

Thank you, Rod, for this time together, and for initiating this interview! It was fun and enlivening, and now is an offer to our PBC community.

Rod Francis is a recent graduate of the PBC Advanced course (LIPCC, Living in Presence Coaching Course), and is a Certified Presence-Based Coach. Rod is the Head Coach Trainer of Bulletproof Training Institute.

Life on the Sidelines

Old habits die hard. They hang on for good reason. They’ve learned their strategies well.  At one time, they served. And, at some point, they outlive their usefulness and their effectiveness.

I find myself in a new situation, a new context that is creating some new demands on my habits.  As many of you know, Doug Silsbee, Founder of Presence-Based Coaching, received a stage 4 lung cancer diagnosis seven months ago. Thankfully, he is still with us, and I have recently stepped in as the sole Principal of Presence-Based Coaching. I find myself as the leader of a body of work and business that I helped shape for many years. And I find myself without a partner in this enterprise. My particular habit shape leans toward collaboration, partnership. Creative combinations of two or more that are often a catalyst for the immediacy and fun of emergence and discovery.

The Appeal of Being #2

And within that bell jar, my preference is to be the #2. I much prefer having a #1 around, it’s so much easier! There’s a shield of protection, my role is clear (= supporting the #1). The partner can vet any of my ideas that don’t really work with where we are going.

I get to be big in this #2 role (big for me!), and still my partner takes the front seat. I’m standing on the sidelines. I don’t have to risk too much, and I feel safe and supported, productive and empowered.

Its much more comfortable being a little behind, and over toward the wall. I don’t’ have to get out on the dance floor (although I do love to dance), at least not by myself.

And there’s another upside: I have witnessed my own substantial learning and growth and development from being a #2.

I have followed, contributed, created and have made my own way sometimes. Within the safe parameters of the partnership, I know that regard and support was always there for me in an unconditional way. Even when I made mistakes. In fact mistakes seemed a lot easier when I had a partner to run to for consolation and understanding and acceptance (even if my ego was a bit bruised by what I labeled as “failure”).

Stepping Into #1: The Shield is Gone

As I’m stepping into the #1 role, it’s quite a challenge, quite an affront to my habitual stance. This being #1 means lots of different things to me, including more responsibility, more work, more decisions, more exposure from being on the front line – the shield is gone. I’m the #1 now. These are big shoes to fill!

I’ve been inquiring into this shift in identity, role, relationship. Gratefully, Doug, my former partner, is still here and can serve as a welcome sounding board. We slip into the old, familiar and comfortable roles…at times. And other times, I’m navigating on my own, finding my way. And I’m opening to new possibilities, including new perspectives, new partnerships, new collaborations, and different ways of moving forward.

There are other upsides, of course. I can do things my way. And that feels fun, and a little mischievous!

Commitment to Continuing Doug’s Legacy

I notice my own strong commitment to continuing Doug’s legacy in a way that serves his brilliance and the work we have built together. The commitment that continues the impact the Presence-Based body of work has on others – the communities we are connected to, the clients and organizations we serve, and the bigger context of the world we live in.

It’s been a stretch so far, which reminds me of another habit I’ve come to notice: to compare myself, and find myself lacking (naturally). This comparative judgment is easy to do with my former partner who is quite big in the world and my habit of taking my place a bit behind him.

Sometimes I feel like a little fish in a big pond. I hear my inner voices saying things like: “They want Doug, they don’t want you,” or “You can’t teach as well as him,” or “You can’t explain or articulate in the way he does.” And I am transported back to an old inner wound: “They don’t want me,” accompanied by a familiar whole body sinking feeling and tightening in my solar plexus.

Who Am I in this?

And despite having successfully enabled a substantial turnaround for my family business in my 30’s, this business feels like a different animal. Presence-Based Coaching and Leadership feels more aligned with who I am now. This body of work is closer to the values I hold dear to my heart and to what I deeply care about. In fact, I’m a different animal.

And I know without any doubt that this body of work is important to me.  That’s why I made this leadership move in the first place! It fits and fills my aspirations for my work in the world and brings me joy and fulfillment to witness other’s growth and development.  I relish being present for those moments when clients or students make life-altering breakthroughs or have insights or understandings that change everything.  Or even observing with delight the little awakenings that create some sense of freedom from an old habit that no longer fits (the irony is not lost on me here!).

So as I’ve been contemplating my new role, my shifting identity and what that means, I sense that I am not actually filling Doug’s shoes. That’s not even possible or desirable. I realize I am on a journey of filling my own shoes. And that feels good to my heart.

Three Questions for Self-Reflection:

  • Which of your habits might be feeling overused, or out of date?
  • What do your inner voices say to you that might limit who you are becoming?
  • Whose shoes are you trying to fill at this moment?

If you want to share, I’d love to hear your thoughts on the above questions. I’m sure our community would too. Leave us a comment below to start a dialogue.

Note: This is my first blog post on “Doug’s Blog,” Notes from the Nexus.  It is with intention, and with Doug’s blessing, that I am doing so. May this blog continue to be of service to those who read it. 

The Hand of the Unseen

Our narrow view actually precludes seeing the workings of the system itself.

When we are living and leading in complexity, we often experience the effects of complexity. We experience the unseen hand of governing dynamics. But, our narrow view focuses our attention on the effects themselves and how they threaten or create opportunities for us. Our narrow view actually precludes seeing the workings of the system itself.

We might notice, for example, that someone completely misinterprets what we said. Or that some well-intended action that has worked a hundred times over our history backfires. Or that, over and over, we find ourselves in a kind of dynamic that has a gravitational pull: we can’t see the pull, but notice that we keep re-creating the same situation over and over ourselves. These are cues that there is something invisible, under the surface. The hand of the unseen is shaping what we experience.

A place that this happens for me is in my efforts to care for others. I learned this early in life: it was good to be thoughtful and considerate of others. It was ugly to be selfish, boastful or to put my needs above those of others. I wanted to be good, I didn’t want to be ugly. So I learned to present myself as thoughtful and considerate, and to overtly subsume my needs to those of others. (Good reason to be a coach, right?)

At the same time, I would often indirectly and unconsciously pursue my own needs, of which I was ashamed. I would find myself startled that I felt resentful, others felt patronized, or my needs weren’t being acknowledged. Sometimes, I didn’t even know what they were! (Coaching is actually deeply satisfying, for both healthy reasons and for others I must be mindful of!)

This, of course, creates complex system dynamics. These patterns of thought and behavior are embodied within me, in my Soma. I express them as the Identity I have worked so hard to produce and maintain (which is sometimes painfully incongruent with what I actually want!) And, the way I show up (thoughtful, sensitive, indirect, and sometimes needy) affects the Contexts of my marriage, client relationships, professional collaborations, and relationships with friends and kids.

I find myself pulled into certain roles: configurations in my relationships that occur over and over. And, I can be blind to how this happens. In the language of adult development, when this happens I am “subject to” the underlying dynamics of the system in which I am living.

One of the key means through which we help our clients, and ourselves, to live and lead more authentically is to learn to see the underlying dynamics that shape us. These underlying dynamics are both with us (in the body) and outside of us (in the ecology of requests and relationships that shapes our external context.) Making these dynamics explicit (or “object”) is the first crucial step towards resourcing ourselves differently, and negotiating with the pulls of these dynamics so that new options become available.

We can introduce daylight between us and these underlying forces. We can make visible the unseen hand that, left unquestioned, shapes our behavior and limits our possibilities.

Here are just a few ways to do this:

  • “Seeing the system” using polarity mapping, elements of complex systems, or other distinctions that make the functioning of the system visible. These perspectives create a balcony view, and allow us to detach from the dynamics and understand why things might be so.
  • Somatic work that brings us into the present. Then, we can actively and directly experience our own internal system as it interacts with the system around us. We self-regulate and cultivate more resourceful inner states that produce resilience and choice.
  • Systemic constellation work is a powerful approach for “dimensionalizing” a system so that we can gain perspective and negotiate with it in new ways.
  • De-coupling our inner state from the conditions around us. We can easily take on the stresses of the system around us. Differentiating our inner condition from what’s going on around us is key to cultivating resilience. Sure, what’s going on around us influences our experience, but it does not determine our experience. This is liberation.

All of these approaches enable realization. Realization is the present moment felt clarity of how reality is actually working (which often stands in painful contrast to how we think it is or should be working!)

Facing reality as it is creates immediacy, and releases energy that is then available for the hard work of being human.

Welcome to complexity.

I find myself pulled into certain roles: configurations in my relationships that occur over and over. And, I can be blind to how this happens. In the language of adult development, when this happens I am “subject to” the underlying dynamics of the system in which I am living.

Presence in Complexity Series #9: Investing in Embodied Capacity

Complexity requires embodying new ways to lead.

The problem is, our lightning-fast cognition says “good enough” way before our nervous system has embodied a new capability. Physiological change and cognitive processing proceed at very different timescales.

A sound strategy for development requires components for both. We must feed our agile and impatient cognition. And, include somatic practices that build embodied, physiologically supported ways of being. There is no way to shortcut the latter, and the former will not produce the same results.

Ben, the newly promoted Director of Quality Control, was in trouble. Ben cared deeply about the organization. However, as smart and knowledgeable as he was, he was like a bull in a china shop with the operations people over whom he had authority. He alienated them with his brusqueness, and they understandably resisted. Morale and performance were suffering.

Faced with the very real possibility of losing his job, Ben was committed to learning a new way of leading that would allow him to work more effectively with operations. As part of a coaching engagement, and really wanting accelerate his learning, Ben joined a ballroom dancing class with his wife.

Accustomed to making things happen his way, Ben clumsily man-handled his wife around the dance floor, producing quick and painful results! With feedback, willingness, and guidance from the teacher, Ben began to experience in his body what it was like to lead. He practiced sensing his wife, joining with her, and moving gracefully together. This worked much better (and was fun and very good for their marriage!)

Dancing showed him the essence of what it could be to partner with the operations people at work. He brought these experiences back into the workplace and experimented with this new sensibility. Over time, Ben’s experimentation led to real partnering with the folks on the line. Coupling this embodied learning with parallel development strategies, Ben was able to turn his situation around and went on to become quite successful in his role.

Our marvelous nervous system is adept at encoding life’s experiences into long term memory.

Faced with a challenging job, Ben did what he’d always done: Focused on results, being direct. He was well-intentioned, but the results his actions produced were far from what he intended. This is what often happens in complexity.

Like Ben, our marvelous nervous system is adept at encoding life’s experiences into long term memory. We learned well who we should be, and the habits that supported this identity over time. However, complexity challenges our identities in sometimes painful ways.

Complexity asks much of us. We need new ways of sensing, being, and acting. We can’t create a different future from the same body — remember the popular definition of insanity? When we face challenges, we need new capabilities NOW.

The beautiful thing is that we know how to train our nervous system to organize itself around what matters to us.

The good news? The beautiful thing is that we know how to train our nervous system to organize itself around what matters to us. An investment in embodied learning can become a life-long practice in the continual renewal and restructuring of our psycho-biology.

We direct our attention towards what we care about. Then, we cultivate inner conditions that are aligned and congruent. We invite this aligned state to take up residence in our nervous system, knowing that we are actually, literally, changing the neural networks that shape and define us. In so doing, we are intentionally becoming a different person, a different body, for the sake of effectively leading towards the future that we care about.

Our development accelerates a natural process that has its own intelligence. We naturally move towards greater capacity, greater complexity, and an ever-larger circle of care. And, there are many methods that accelerate this natural process. Here are some that are particularly powerful:

  • Somatic practices: Like the ballroom dancing example above, we can find ways to practice in our body the capabilities that we need. Tai chi to practice settling our state, tennis to practice delegation and being in conversation, parachuting to practice trust while jumping into the unknown, conscious breathing to practice settling ourselves in high pressure meetings.
  • Community of practice: Find, or create, a community of people who share your interests and who are committed learners. Build regular structures for engaging with these people and practicing together. Be with people who are on a path of development, who are committed learners, and who have some discipline about learning.
  • Who you hang with: Find some conversation and thought partners with whom to have regular exchanges of ideas and support. Find people who are inspiring, who are intellectually nimble and able to take multiple perspectives, who will be direct and honest with you, who can be compassionate and incisive. Be with people who challenge and energize you; with whom you feel more alive and more yourself. (You can trust this feeling.)
  • Challenges: Say Yes to commitments that you don’t know you can fulfill on. Take on projects that demand you be someone other than who you’ve been so far.
  • Out of the box: Disrupt what you normally do in order expand your perspective. Begin small: take a different route to work, change something about how you structure time, write with your left hand, listen to music when you ordinarily wouldn’t. Then, you can travel outside your home country, look through a telescope, visit a national park, visit with people who live a very different life than you live and see the world through their eyes.

Our development accelerates a natural process that has its own intelligence.

Consider these questions:

  • What complexity challenge do you face?
  • What new capabilities do you need for this challenge?
  • What practices might build your capacity?