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.

Bonuses.

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.

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.

5 Ways to Fail at Leading a MeetingThe reputation of the president, chairman, or CEO may (unfortunately) depend on his or her ability to run a meeting. Whether the gathering is big or small, scheduled or impromptu, people want the person in charge to preside well. (Warning: If at first the leader doesn’t succeed, he may be tuned out or replaced!) So, how can you insure you’ll have the ear of your membership? Here are the top five no-no’s for leading meetings.

1. Start Late

Nothing tells members that you don’t value their time like starting late. If your agenda says the meeting starts at noon, then start at noon, not 12:01. Punctuality bolsters your attempts to follow parliamentary procedure.

In my experience as a parliamentarian, meetings tend to start late for two main reasons: (1) an essential person is unprepared, or (2) members are late. The solution to both is simply to establish a pattern of starting on time.

I’ve learned that if a presiding officer or president establishes a reputation of starting on time, people will be present and prepared. Several years ago, I helped a board that had a reputation for never starting on time. Members and staff would saunter into the meeting room at a relaxed pace, a fair amount of socializing would occur, and the president would wait to call the meeting to order until enough individuals were in attendance. This practice lasted (and became progressively worse) until the group elected a new president, who promptly announced that he would start the meetings on time. The first board meeting was rough; plenty of members walked in after the meeting had already started. But it didn’t take long for people to learn and adapt, and the meetings became much more efficient as a result.

2. Ignore the Agenda

Agendas exist for a reason. At a minimum they inform members which topics will be discussed and in what order—a basic Robert’s Rules concept and a wise one. Presiding officers who ignore the agenda create a fertile environment for confusion and for individual members to take control of a meeting. Instead, a presiding officer should do the following:

  • Participate in creating the agenda. Even if staff are responsible for constructing an initial draft, a presiding officer should ask to see this draft several days before the meeting and should review and comment on it. In any event, the presiding officer should know the agenda better than anyone and understand both its substance and the reasons for the order of the topics.
  • Follow the agenda. Especially in board and committee meetings, members often want to veer from the agenda by either re-ordering the topics or adding additional ones. The presiding officer should resist the temptation to let this happen without the group’s approval. When making shifts to an agenda seems appropriate and necessary, the presiding officer should put the suggestion to the group for their consent. Doing otherwise communicates that one member’s “agenda” is more important than everyone else’s.

3. Confuse the Members

Members are generally confused for one main reason: They don’t know what motion is on the floor. And it’s the presiding officer’s job to fix this by repeating ad nauseum the motion that’s before the group. Repeat it right after it’s seconded, repeat it again during debate, repeat it again if there’s an amendment, and repeat it again before taking a vote. Just repeat it – because no matter how clear you think you’ve been, there’s at least one member who hasn’t been paying attention and is confused. And it’s that member that will take up everyone’s time with off-topic discussion or who will vote “no” when he or she actually meant to vote “yes”! Keeping everyone on the same page by constantly clarifying what topic is before the group is a great way to save time and keep the meeting moving.

4. Facilitate Endless, Undirected Discussion

Leaders need to stick to three simple rules if they want to facilitate meaningful, efficient discussion:

  • No one speaks unless they are recognized.
  • Only one person speaks at a time.
  • Speakers may discuss only the issue that’s on the floor.

For more, see related post on facilitating discussion during meetings.

5. Show Favoritism

No one likes everybody, but when you’re leading a meeting, you have to fake it. Simply put, you have to make each member feel as if his or her view and vote is just as valuable as every other member’s. One way to communicate equality is by recognizing each member in a neutral fashion.  For example, saying, “The Chair recognizes the member at microphone #1,” instead of, “The Chair recognizes Ms. Jones.”  If you call Ms. Jones by name but not the member that comes after her, your personal address (even if innocent) implies that you favor Ms. Jones. A second way to communicate equality is by refraining from engaging in discussion or commenting on any member’s points in discussion. Best practice is to simply follow each member’s remarks with, “Thank you. Is there any further discussion?”  A final way to communicate equality is by alternating your recognition of speakers in favor of a motion and opposed to a motion. Repeatedly recognizing speakers on one side of an issue gives the impression that you want the group to hear only from that side.

Success in leading meetings hinges on careful prep, clear communication, and impartiality. Don’t mess it up! Establish a reputation of strong leadership and organization when you’re up in front.