5 Basics for Successfully Navigating Your Next MeetingI’d be a rich woman if had a dollar for every time I’ve heard the parliamentary procedure query, “Why all these rules, anyway?!” Well, I didn’t make them up, and they weren’t hatched recently at all – Robert’s Rules harks back to 1876. And most of the rules are not arbitrary, but are based on five basic principles. Knowing the logic behind these procedures can actually help you with the numerous specific rules.

1. Equality of Rights

Parliamentary procedure is based on the concept that the right of each person in an organization is equal to every other person in that group. (By contrast, consider a corporation with shareholders where one person may have more votes, and the balance of power is most definitely not equal.) Parliamentary procedure is designed for assemblies where equal rights are the governing thought.

2. Equal Right to Discussion

Stemming from principle #1 is the concept that in a group using parliamentary procedure, you can’t just cut people off. Everyone has an equal right to discuss each topic. A specific rule based on this principle is the two-thirds vote requirement for closing debate. Because discussion is a basic right of every member, the rules don’t allow a group to close debate with only a majority (think more than half) vote. A higher number of people (two-thirds) in favor of that idea is needed. While it might be hard to pull the two-thirds rule out of your head on the spot, if you remember simply that discussion is a basic right of every member, you’ll know that you need a not-normal vote to make it happen.

3. The Right to Information

The third basic principle of parliamentary procedure is that every member of the group has a right to know the details that will enable them to make decisions. If you’re going to hold a special meeting (one that’s not regularly set) for example, you have to tell everyone when and where it will be, and what you’re going to talk about. No, you can’t just tell your special friends and supporters, and hope that everyone else stays home. Also, during a meeting, you must keep everyone in the loop on topics that are up for a vote and how to vote. Even the people that are on a mission to make your life difficult.

4. Majority Decision

Bottom line for this one: Majority rules in parliamentary procedure. If you’re super unhappy that the majority of your group is doing something, you shouldn’t be a part of that group. Learning to abide by the will of a group is part of life. In an assembly following parliamentary procedure, if the majority wants to do it, then you have to go along – or drum up your own “majority” to change things.

5. Minority Rights

And to complement the fourth principle, even though majority rules, the minority has rights. I frequently remind clients that you may be in the majority today, but in the minority tomorrow, so never squelch the minority. And generally, in my experience, people can deal with a result they don’t like if they feel that the process was fair. Suppression of somebody’s voice upsets folks, so work hard to honor minority rights. You won’t be sorry.

Handy Tips for Keeping Discussion under ControlTo let the pros have the floor or the cons….That is the question. And in America, the home of all things democratic, who gets to speak in an organized meeting is an especially important question: Everyone’s voice is valued, and we feel the need to make sure everyone gets a chance to say their piece. But, what about your small business meeting—just the board—say, 12 or fewer people? Are you required to go all democratic and let everyone have their full say on every issue?

Let’s talk concerns first.

Total time. If each individual is given the floor, for an extended length of time, before each vote, the meeting will last forever.

Time-hogs. The person that tends to carry on for too long will definitely do so. It’s a meeting guarantee if you have no controls in place.

Mr. Quiet. The shy guy in the group does have opinions, but he won’t ever get to talk, nor will he speak up to say so.

Chaos. Throw a hot issue into the ring, and things can get unwieldy fast. You won’t accomplish anything in the craziness of everyone talking at once.

Uncertainty. With no organization, several folks will likely sit a good while with hand raised, wondering when and if they’ll ever get to speak.

I offer you a three-step solution to manage discussion and keep it (and you) from going nuts.

1. Officially invite speakers.

When there is a motion on the floor, say to the whole group, “Who wants to speak in favor of this motion? Please raise your hand.”

2. Note the names.

As people raise their hands to express interest in speaking, write their names on a prepared paper – in any order. Three columns will do the job: Names, Pros, Cons. Next to the name, place a check in the pro column for those wanting to speak in favor of the motion.

[Repeat steps one and two for the other side: “Who wants to speak in opposition? Please raise your hand.” And note names, placing a check in the cons column.]

3. Recognize speakers.

Alternate each side until all have spoken.


Not only will no one have to lose circulation with their hand in the air for 10 minutes, but also you’ll be able to see clearly how much support or opposition exists for that idea. Perhaps, for example, no one raises a hand to speak in opposition! Then you get to say, “It doesn’t look as if there is any opposition. We could save time by moving to a vote if no one minds.” And business can clip along. (Happy dance!)

These steps also enable you to see who has already spoken. According to Robert’s Rules, no one speaks twice until all who want to speak on that side have spoken. Just visualize a line at the microphone in a larger meeting: Generally, we don’t allow cutting in order to get in line again. But in a small board meeting, this can happen – Joe the Talker constantly interrupts and dominates. Easy fix: If anyone wants to speak again, add that name to the bottom of the list, and if there’s time (see my thoughts on debate time limits here), allow it.

5 Essential Facts about Closing DebateIf there’s one reason people hate meetings, it’s because they drag on forever with needless discussion. According to Robert’s Rules, closing debate and moving directly to a vote on a motion – via a specific motion called “Previous Question” – is one (sometimes popular) way to speed things along. But ending debate on a motion only works when it’s done properly (i.e., when parliamentary procedure is followed). Here are five essential facts to know before you try to end debate and shorten up those meetings:

1. “Previous Question” Means to Close Debate and Vote Immediately

When someone says, “I move the previous question” or “I call the question” or just says “question,” they are asking to close debate and vote immediately on the motion that’s on the floor.

British parliament has sketchy historical records about the original use of this term sometime in the 1600s. It’s not tremendously clear why and how the original phrase was coined, but it allegedly arose during a lengthy and disputed parliamentary discussion and then has continued to be used to the present day (though rarely) to communicate, “We need to wrap things up here and vote already.”

History aside — because the meaning of the term “previous question” is no longer readily apparent — I recommend simply saying “close debate” instead. In my view, most meetings have enough confusion on their own. No need to add more by using terms that most of the group does not understand.

2. The Person Who Moves the “Previous Question” Must Be Recognized First

Meeting participants often want to interrupt a speaker to make the motion to close debate. For example, they want to find an unused microphone and say, “I call the previous question.” Or they want to yell “question” from the back of the room.

But the motion to close debate does not have interrupting privileges. If a member wants to move to close debate, she must get in line and seek recognition like any other member waiting to discuss the motion. Importantly, though, a member can seek recognition to offer comments on the motion and at the end of the comments move to close debate.

3. “Previous Question” Is Not Debatable

This point needs little explanation. Quite simply, there’s no need to debate whether to close debate. The point of “Previous Question” is to move the meeting along. Why defeat that purpose with even more discussion?

4. “Previous Question” Requires a Two-Thirds Majority for Adoption

Because the right to discussion is a fundamental right of every member, the motion to close debate requires a two-thirds majority vote. This fact is a basic rule dictated by Robert’s Rules of Order Newly Revised.

5. A Vote on “Previous Question” Is Not a Vote on the Main Motion

A member that moves to close debate and vote immediately on the main motion is moving to stop discussion. As I just noted, that action needs a two-thirds majority to be adopted. If the motion to close debate receives a two-thirds majority, the group should immediately turn to a vote on the main motion. There’s no more discussion because this vote just closed debate. But you still need a separate vote on the main motion.

I find that members often get confused here because they think that voting on the motion to close debate somehow also takes care of the main motion. It doesn’t. You need a vote first on ending debate (two-thirds majority) and then a vote on the main motion itself (likely only a simple majority).

In sum, next time you sense that a discussion has dragged on for a little too long, feel free to move to close debate. Just remember the essentials!

3 Wrong Ways to Facilitate Discussion at a MeetingDiscussing….presenting ideas….asking questions. Parliamentary procedure allows all of this, right?  But, you’re thinking, there’s this guy who always speaks up. Or there’s the member who asks the strangest questions – the awkward ones no one knows how to answer! And what about the lady who just won’t shut up once she gets going.

Discussion keeps the meeting rolling along with a variety of participants. But the flip side? Discussion can be what makes a meeting last forever. If you’re in charge, it’s easy to let discussion rule the day. However, it’s a mistake to think that you must…

1. Always Ask For Discussion No Matter What

See The #1 Secret That Will Shorten Your Meetings

2. Recognize the Loudest, Most Persistent Members First

Every group has that member who offers his opinion at will by interrupting other members around the board table, or by yelling his views from the back of the room. Don’t let that happen. A presiding officer should require each member to seek recognition before speaking. This is not just Robert’s Rules. It’s wisdom and courtesy.

In a large group, members should leave their seats and come to a microphone. This ensures that their comments will be heard by everyone, and it forces them to get in line and wait their turn. In a small group, members should raise their hand and wait to be recognized.

3. Never Cut Anyone Off

Discussion without any time limits just might be the definition of “purgatory.” Robert’s Rules of Order helps a little: Members can speak only two times, for 10 minutes each time, on any issue.

But this isn’t enough. (Do you really want to listen to Mr. Talks-a-Lot for 10 whole minutes?) Groups should adopt other methods to ensure that discussion doesn’t extend longer than necessary.

Here’s a few ideas, all of which can be accomplished by adopting special rules.

  • Limit members’ speaking time on any issue to two times for three minutes each time.
  • Assign time limits to each item on the agenda. Run your meeting with a schedule.
  • Decide the total number of members that can speak in favor of and against each motion.

Bottom line: Enforce the limits you have. This means you likely need a timekeeper. And when a member’s time runs out, just kindly say, “The member’s time has expired,” which sounds much friendlier than something like, “You are out of time.”

A great meeting doesn’t happen when the presiding officer delivers a monotonous lecture. It happens when just enough people provide enough good thoughts to keep the meeting interesting and helpful, and to provoke solid decision-making. Run your next meeting with some discussion controls in place, and you’ll likely find it’s a much more enjoyable experience.

How to Keep it Brief: The No. 1 Secret to Shortening Your MeetingsNo one likes sitting in a meeting any longer than necessary. So here’s the best kept secret for shortening a meeting: bypass debate on non-controversial motions.

Not all motions or topics need to be discussed. Sometimes – more often than you might think –members of a board, committee, or even a larger group are already in agreement. Why waste time with needless debate in that case? Save everyone’s energy, and simply put the matter to a vote.

To be clear, if your rules permit discussion on a motion, the presiding officer or president must allow it. But allowing it and explicitly asking, “Is there any discussion?” are two different things.

There are two primary ways to bypass discussion on a motion while still technically “allowing” for it. Key point: Both require the presiding officer or president to have a firm handle on the agenda and the topics set to come before the group.

Method 1

Use unanimous consent, also known as general consent. If a presiding officer knows in advance that an agenda item is entirely non-controversial (and some are), she should use unanimous consent to move directly to a vote on that topic.

For example, to take a unanimous consent vote on approving the previous meeting’s minutes, the presiding officer would say, “If there is no objection, the minutes are approved.” The alternative is to ask for a motion, second, and discussion on approving the minutes, and then to say, “All those in favor of approving the minutes say, ‘aye.’ . . . All those opposed, say, ‘no.’” Do you see how the unanimous consent method saves time?

Of course, if the presiding officer is mistaken about the consensus, and a member does want to discuss the topic, that member can simply object by saying, “I object,” during the unanimous consent vote. This forces the presiding officer to ask for discussion and take a vote that seeks a response both from those in favor and those in opposition.

Method 2

Clarify who is in favor and who is opposed. In a large assembly, this happens at microphones labelled “pro” and “con.” As motions are opened for discussion, members wanting to offer their views line up at the appropriate microphone.

In small groups, this happens by a show of hands. The presiding officer can simply ask, “Who would like to speak in favor of/opposition to this motion?”

When a presiding officer sees that the members who want to discuss are from only one side (pro or con), she should gauge the group’s interest in having a discussion at all. For example, she could say, “I see that the only members lining up for debate are in favor of the motion. Is there anyone who would like to speak in opposition? [Pause] If not, is there any objection to dispensing with discussion and moving directly to a vote?”

Sometimes a group will want to hear from everyone, even if they are all on one side of an issue, but more often than not the members will see the time-saving advantage of moving directly to a vote.

Bottom line: Do your members a favor by ascertaining in advance which topics can be put to a vote without discussion. You’ll be surprised how quickly your meetings will move along!