Basic Robert’s Rules for Happier Meetings

By William H. Grignon, Parliamentary Team

Long, tedious, drawn-out meetings with seemingly endless discussions and testy procedural wrangling can be the death of any organization. To keep things moving, to ensure that everyone has a chance to be heard, and to get the most done in the most efficient ways, Robert’s Rules of Order gives the presiding officer lots of power to, well, preside. The collection of procedures sets forth an army of rules that try to cover every contingency. But for most chapters and affiliates, an understanding of the basic rules, a decisive presiding officer, and a modicum of mutual respect will go a long way to making your meetings shorter, happier, and more productive. This article has relied on materials presented at robertsrules.org/rror–00.htm, where much more information is available.

Even before we get to Robert’s Rules, it is strongly recommended that committee work be done at committee level and not take over and bog down your general meetings. Committees should be given defined tasks, research the issues, meet before the general meeting, and be prepared to provide a succinct report with a definite proposal on how the organization should proceed. Hence, should an issue arise during one of your meetings and threaten to gobble up time, energy, and good feelings, the presiding officer is empowered to instruct the appropriate committee to work on the issue and come back to the next meeting with a report and proposals.

Once a committee representative has made a report and brought forth a proposal, the presiding officer should entertain a motion to approve the proposal by recognizing a member and giving that member the floor in order to make the motion. Once the motion is made, the presiding officer must ask for a second. Only after a motion is made and seconded, and the presiding officer states the question that is to be debated, can the floor be open up for debate. It is important not to allow discussion to descend into debate before a specific question is moved and seconded. Before the presiding officer states the question for debate, amendments to the motion may be entertained or the movant may remove the motion. Allowing debate only after stating the specific issue gives the proceeding focus and direction, and it minimizes the chance for digression into extraneous matters.

Before a member can make a motion or participate in the debate, she must “obtain the floor.” This is done by the member standing, raising a hand, or otherwise indicating to the presiding officer that she would like the floor. Robert’s Rules has many protocols about who the presiding officer should prefer to recognize, but for most purposes, the first person to rise or get the presiding officer’s attention should be given the floor. Only after the presiding officer has recognized this member and yielded the floor to her, can she address the assembly. It is important to note that once a member has the floor, no other member can speak on the issue under debate, but another member may make procedural objections (which do not need seconds) that the presiding officer must then deal with. Generally, however, debate should proceed in an orderly fashion, with the presiding officer recognizing each member who wishes to speak, each member getting a chance to speak, and the debate ending when everyone has had a chance to speak or the presiding officer concludes that no new points are being made. It is the duty of the presiding officer to keep the debate on point and gently but firmly curtail digressions and redundancies.

Once the presiding officer has determined that debate is over, she shall “put the question” by restating the motion and asking for affirmative votes, then asking for negative votes, then announcing the result of the vote. Votes can be taken by voice, by show of hands, or by ballot. For most instances, a simple voice vote should suffice, but if it seems close, the presiding officer or any member can demand a show of hands or a ballot vote. Once the vote is final, if the result of the vote is affirmative, the motion is adopted and becomes part of the organizations formal operations; but if the vote defeats the motion, there can be no more discussion on that motion. The presiding officer may entertain new motions that attempt to more closely conform to the consensus of the membership, or the presiding officer may refer the matter back to committee for further study and the making of a fresh report at the next meeting.

The presiding officer can then proceed to the next order of business on her agenda. Remember, motions can arise at any point during the meeting (except when there is already a motion on the floor) and should be dealt with using the basic formula set forth above. Moreover, the names of movants and seconds should be recorded in the minutes, as should the final vote tally in cases of show of hands or vote by ballot.

It is highly recommended that at least one member be tasked to act as the Parliamentarian of the organization. Such an individual would be responsible for familiarizing herself with the basic Robert’s Rules and be prepared to rule on points of order when they arise during a meeting. To this end, the Parliamentarian should have an accessible version of Robert’s Rules latest revision with her at the meeting for easy reference. The ruling of the Parliamentarian should be the final word on any contested point of order and the meeting should proceed accordingly.

Report, motion, second, asking of the question, debate, putting of the question, and vote is the basic procedural formula for orderly and productive meetings. Of course, respecting the power of the presiding officer, respecting the right of others to be fairly heard, and respecting the will of the majority are also essential ingredients for well-run meetings that keep your members engaged and energized.

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