A while back there was a blogosphere kerfuffle about charitable reading.  I read. I absorbed. I pondered.

And then at Computers in Libraries, I had a bunch of really interesting conversations with other librarians. (I may have mentioned that once or twice…) One of the issues sparked in those conversations has stuck with me, and I keep thinking about it, so I shared it all with my coworkers yesterday by email. And then I thought, “Hey, I could repost that and share it with the world.” So, consider this my PSA in re-raising the issues from the earlier kerfuffle.

Frankly, it’s less about blogging, and more about people — and how we listen and talk to each other. The term that gets used most often is ‘charitable listening’ or ‘charitable reading’, in which, to quote a friend, Josh Neff (as quoted by Meredith Farkas), “I’ve picked up on one thing that I think is crucial for any kind of discussion: charitable reading. Read what I’ve written assuming that I mean the best possible thing, not the worst.”

Meredith wrote, “How would you like to see people? We have a choice in the way we view and react to things. I don’t think we should constantly worry about being polite and agreeing with what everyone else says by any stretch of the imagination. … But when has someone changed their mind after being attacked? Who has said “well, now that you’ve jumped down my throat, I really see your point and agree”?”

Wikipedia says this about the philosophical concept of charity in understanding:

“The four principles are:

  1. The other uses words in the ordinary way;
  2. The other makes true statements;
  3. The other makes valid arguments;
  4. The other says something interesting.”

The opposite of this is described by Ross Rader, about to go to a contentious meeting, “Usually in these settings, I am listening to understand a) if I agree with a person, b) if they are lying to me, c) if they are trying manipulate me, d) if they are trying to confuse me, or e) if they are trying to twist my words to their advantage, and so on. This requires a lot of energy, most of it negative. … I don’t think that the results are really worth expending that much negative energy anymore. … So, this coming week, I am going to try to practice the principles of charitable listening.”

So this is all what I’ve been thinking about. Positive versus negative communication. The four principles — assume that the person you are speaking with is being straightforward, is telling the truth as they see it, has valid things to say, and is contributing something interesting — say so much about coming into a conversation with an open mind and collegial spirit. When we listen to each other in meetings and in hallways, when we read email and blogs and articles, are we doing it charitably? Are we assuming the best of each other?

I think it’s safe to say that in academic libraries we all get stressed out by end-of-semester stuff, and we’re all tempted to fall into bad habits and negative outlooks — it’s hot in here, it’s gorgeous outside, we’re all busy, the students are stressed out, too, and are being demanding, and who wants to go to another meeting? Not me!

But if we were to try to let go of some of that stress, and instead hold onto the four principles of charity, and credit others with the best possible intentions, I wonder what we’d accomplish, and how we’d feel about our lives and our work?


  1. I like this idea. I think that I may have to incorporate this into my staff training sessions along with my favorite – “Ask yourself how you can say yes to any reasonable request instead of looking for reasons to say no.” Charitable listening should work quite well with this. Thanks for bringing this to my attention.


  2. Nah, I think there’s plenty of room for skepticism — I can listen with the assumption that someone means well, is speaking truth from their knowledge, and is making valid arguments — and still think they’re totally flippin’ wrong for my own “I disbelieve” reasons. I just think we need to, as a set state, trust that people in our workplaces are doing things with an intention for good rather than evil.


  3. This is a note for John Adkins. I would like to know more about your staff training – from this comment it looks like it matches well with what we are trying to do at our library. Could you drop me a note at pfranz at Thanks so much, Patty

    Jenica – Thanks so much for the information on Charitable listening and reading. You have given me so much to think about. Patty


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