Simplified Parliamentary Procedure that Encourages Civilized Debate

Posted by Kristin Arnold on September 10, 2015

Whether you call it Roberts Rules of Order or have modified your own version (Bob’s Rules!), many Boards use some form of parliamentary procedure to run their formal meetings.  I have seen these kinds of meetings run exceedingly well…and others, not so much.

First, everyone should know the basic rules.  Create a “cheat sheet” if you must, or a small guide to the rules you will follow.  Then EXPECT everyone to know them.  It’s also to know that a few members can be your “go-to” resources to clarify any parliamentary points of order.

You’ll need a motion to start and end the meeting (that should be easy…).  Key players often report progress (that’s just a presentation and some Q&A, so that should be easy too).   And a motion needs to be made to make any decisions (approve prior meeting minutes, accept a report, approve a proposal).  And this is where things go badly.  It is much more difficult to have a civilized conversation when there are opposing viewpoints – and Roberts Rules is set up to approve or deny a proposal decision (otherwise known as a motion).  Somebody wins, and somebody loses.

You should not be trying to build a collaborative consensus during this meeting.  All of that behind-the-scenes, give-and-take collaborative discussion occurs in the formation of the proposal.  The theory is that the proposal has already gone through some serious thoughtful consideration before it makes it to the Board.  Particular attention needs to be made in the specific wording of the motion.  You can’t assume people will know what you’re talking about.  It has to be quite literal and specific.

Unfortunately, many motions have NOT gone through the proper vetting and documentation so members can be informed of the potential decisions before the meeting.  As a result, board members can become polarized in their opinions and use the meeting as a way to explore their own thinking on the subject and/or vent their frustration.

(BTW, if it looks like a motion is a slam dunk – you don’t think there will be any opposition – you can put it on a consent calendar where all the proposals are voted “en banc” – all at once.  Anyone on the Board may pull an item from the consent calendar to be deliberated separately).

Over the years, I have developed a process that allows for a civilized, constructive debate of a motion:

  1. A voting member of the Board makes a specific motion (I call this person the Sponsor).
  2. A different voting member “seconds” the motion.
  3. The Author of the motion and/or Sponsor provides quick overview.
  4. Chair asks if there are any questions for clarification. (Be firm on this as some people like to use this as a way to bully their way in to making a position known).
  5. Chair restates the motion and asks if anyone would like to speak “against “the motion (since the Author/Sponsor has already spoken in favor of the motion).
    1. Call on one, “queue” the others who have raised their hand to speak  – the Chair verbally states the order in which he/she will call on people.  Chair should give priority to those who have not spoken yet.
    2. If none, the Chair calls the question to a vote and a voting member must second it.
  6. Call for anyone who would like to speak “for” the motion. Call on one, queue the others as above.
  7. Continue “rebuttals” – encouraging comments to be additive and not repetitive.
  8. When “done” (time’s up or no more rebuttals), Chair calls the question for a vote and a voting member must second it.
  9. The Chair restates the motion and takes the vote on the motion.

This process works like a charm…although amendments to the motion can get people pretty confused.  So, keep track of amendments using the exact same process.  Just realize you are talking about the amendment and NOT the actual motion.

Hope this process works for you to have a constructive debate using parliamentary procedures.



Kristin Arnold is a professional meeting facilitator and international speaker who is passionate about teamwork. The Extraordinary Team’s approach to building high performance teams combines consulting, coaching, training and process facilitation within the context of working real issues. You can read more of her work in one of her books Team Basics, Email Basics, Team Energizers, or Boring to Bravo. 

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