Working a Long Way Backward

Recently, I really needed some auditory intellectual companionship to offset the work in my hands.

I have had a certain knitting project underway for a considerable time, a stole of an almost mindlessly repetitive pattern in long, long rows. My purpose in starting it was mostly therapy, but there is an end product in mind, and the yarn involved was pricey. When I came to a stretch of yarn with a break, I shook off my irritation, did an expert mend, and proceeded. Then it happened again. Then, again.

We were now not experiencing restful therapy. We were aggravated.

I put the project into its woolly penalty box for about 24 hours while I worked up my resolve to meticulously knit backward over hundreds of stitches and thus return to the place where the problem began. When I was ready, I created an environment to support my resolve. Tea? Check. Cats sleeping? Check. Background?


From his first television appearances, I’ve been a fan of Dick Cavett. His long-form interviews and wry humor are just right for me, and I feel lucky to find videos of his work on YouTube to enjoy again. There are no sparkles or explosions to watch (but plenty to listen to) in a Cavett piece. He was just the companion I would need to retrace my steps/stitches.

I browsed and found an interview¹ of him by Brendan and Rico of The Dinner Party Download from April 2016. They covered a lot of stories from his long career during their conversation, and they eventually asked him about his experience handling an embarrassing moment that happened while he was interviewing George Harrison.

“The best thing you can do is…and it sounds so silly…try to listen to what the guest is saying.”

It’s funny how many places you hear truths restated.  It certainly wasn’t the first time I’d heard that piece of advice.

For example, some years back, Coach Michael² participated in a Dave Sandler’s sales training program, which raised the following as a focus point:

“Can asking questions be the answer?”

(You could Google that phrase, but don’t try this without professional guidance. It’s surprisingly dangerous and potentially embarrassing in the hands of the untrained.)

Here’s the problem: as a salesperson, you want to say the right thing at the right time. (Arguably, non-salespersons want to do that, too.) However, in the performance-stress moment of a sales conversation, it’s easy to be so worried about doing things right that you miss what’s actually being said to you. This is no different than finding yourself staring at a television guest and realizing you have no idea what they just said. Cue disaster.

The point of Sandler’s technique (very short version) is to turn the salesperson’s focus away from their own pitch and onto the prospect. This is sort of like, yes, listening to the guest. More broadly, it is paying attention to the other person.

Quietly undoing days of work gives you time to reflect. As I listened to Cavett about listening itself, I thought about what a noisy place the world often is now, strident in tone, lacking in nuance. I thought about all the years elapsed since Dick Cavett’s show and Dave Sandler’s program, where a truth got spoken that was not new even then. I thought about all the times that our public discourse and personal interactions still just focus inward even though we should know better by now.

Maybe we could revisit this listening stuff one more time – at least to find the place where the problem began. Me? I’m just going to pick up my own work and start over.

¹You will find the point Cavett raised at about 10:30 in the interview, but the whole thing is worthwhile if you like that sort of thing. I do.