Roberta's Rules: Meetings and More

March 8, 2011


Filed under: Uncategorized — Roberta's Rules of Order, author @ 10:56 am

When walking through an airport near a bookstore on a business trip, I spotted a book cover that caught my eye.  Being a self proclaimed “Meeting Maven”, I was drawn to this book because it promised to help managers have shorter meetings.  I bought it.

Settling into my seat to read for what I thought would be an enlightening few hours, I was sorely disappointed.  The gist of the book was that, in order to have shorter meetings, the meeting leader must prevent others from talking!   The author thought people expressing an opinion or sharing their ideas was the problem and that severely limiting the opportunity would be the solution!

This is a good solution??? It reminded me of a saying from Interaction Associates – if you can’t get agreement on the problem, you probably won’t get agreement on the solution. I didn’t agree with the problem or his solution.  People exchanging information and ideas is the reason to call a meeting – if the purpose and intended results are clear.

Yes, many meetings are too long – but the problem could be one of the following:

  • The meeting is boring and it just seems too long.  Enliven it!
  • The meeting is too long, but it may be due to poor planning and leadership.
  • The time is being used for sharing “reports” (which should be written and e-mailed.) instead of solving problems together or seeking ways to innovate.
  • There’s a lot of discussion but no decisions – See my previous BLOG post about  “discuss” being a dangerous word on an agenda.

Next time you want to have a shorter meeting, have a clear reason to call it, the right people in the room, a structured approach to solving a problem or developing new approaches, a good facilitative leader (or neutral facilitator) and a timekeeper.  Time is valuable and can be an incentive to have more productive, if not just shorter, meetings.

December 28, 2010


Filed under: Uncategorized — Roberta's Rules of Order, author @ 8:55 pm

In my last blog entry I used my city’s Community Emergency Response Training (CERT) as an example of how being an expert on the subject is essential, but not  the only skill needed when leading a group training program.

To teach skills of any kind to a group of people is a challenge! The trainers, like leaders of meetings, can handle the group behavior if they are “facilitative” when teaching.  This requires knowing the difference between two key concepts that co-exist – like two sides of a coin.  They can’t be separated and are always present. They are:

CONTENT – What the group is learning, subjects, topics and desired outcomes or results

PROCESS – How the content is being delivered and how the group is behaving

Process is like the “other side” of the coin – equally as important as the content in a group learning situation.  In the previous blog I gave some process “preventions” to use before the training.  Here is a list of suggested “interventions” to use during a training session – or in a meeting.

1) Remind people of the ground-rules (see previous blog – Part I) at the beginning of each meeting. Check to get general agreement (using eye contact with those that are the worst offenders.)

2) Use your eye-contact to encourage (or discourage) a response.  Don’t look at the “chatty” person when asking a question or encouraging comments.  Look elsewhere among the group and ask for responses from participants who have not said anything recently, or at all.

3) Leave the front of the room and move into the group.  Occasionally turn your body away from overly active participants while using your hands and eye contact to encourage other participates (like conducting an orchestra).

4) When a person’s comment or question takes the group off the agenda onto a tangent, say, “in the interest of everyone in the room, we need to move get back to the topic”.  Everyone else will thank you!

5) If nothing else works, it can help if one of the trainers talks to the person privately, requesting their constraint.  He or she may have no idea how his or her behavior is impacting others in the class!  (In a future blog I’ll write about how to be a good meeting participant.)

These few interventions can make a difference.  If you’re a subject-matter expert in your field and conduct classes of any sort, give these a try.  It will improve your ability to deliver the training and gain appreciation from the group.

Please let me know how they work for you.   I’d love to hear your stories or comments.


Filed under: Uncategorized — Roberta's Rules of Order, author @ 8:46 pm

Recently I attended the CERT (Community Emergency Response Training) offered in my city.  It included six weekly meetings for three hours in the evening.  Each session had a different focus on how to respond as a team to disasters, particularly earthquakes.  (Because I live in California, that’s “top of mind”.)  It was very thorough, experiential (we practiced, “hands on”) and well presented by two knowledgeable and personable people from the city’s Office of Emergency Services.

So why am I writing about this?  Because having subject-matter expertise is vital – and they were experts in this field – it’s not the only information or skill needed when training a group of people.   (I’ll admit it, as a professional facilitator and group dynamics junkie, I get frustrated easily when a in a group meeting).  Yes, a training seminar or workshop is like a meeting, with an agenda, media (including dreaded power point), handouts and, oh yes, participants – with a few acting badly.

On our first evening of CERT I joined 40 people in a “classroom trailer” at a local Fire Department sitting behind tables facing the front.  I noticed that one person was already dominating the group.  She blurted out answers to every question asked by the trainers before anyone else could answer. She regularly asked questions challenging the knowledge of the trainers, to prove she knew more. What to do?

The trainers used humor to lighten the situation, and kept moving through the agenda. Yet, some in the group were annoyed.  (You could tell by the rolling of their eyes when this woman spoke.)  I have to admit in a moment of frustration I requested to the whole group (not singling her out) that we “share the airtime”.  Most nodded in agreement; she ignored me.  More started showing signs of really being annoyed – our body language and sniping remarks showed it.

This person wasn’t going to modify her own behavior.  I could speculate about the reasons, but but it wouldn’t help.  So I’ll focus on the role of the trainers to manage this type of behavior as the facilitators of the training “meeting”.

The concept of a “Facilitative Trainer” is not new.  Peter Gibb, a consultant at Interaction Associates (IA) in San Francisco and a colleague of mine during the 1980’s wrote an article on this subject.  I no longer have the article, but I remember some of the key behaviors, still being taught by IA.  They are categorized as “preventions” (use before the training or in the beginning) and “interventions” (use during the training).  Preventions are always easier than interventions!

A few “preventions” the CERT trainers could use in future sessions:

1) Establish some group ground-rules (or courtesy guidelines) in the first meeting.  Ask for agreement from the group.  A few examples are:


  • Turn off your cell phones and beepers.  Return calls on breaks outside the room.
  • If you have a question, or comments, write it down.  At the end of each section, you’ll a chance to ask them.  (Keep the focus on the agenda.)
  • Give others the opportunity to answer or ask a question before you speak a second or third time.  (Think of directing traffic.)
  • Limit side conversations with those seated around you that distract others.
  • Add others suggested by the group – they know what annoys them!

2) Take the tables out of the room and form a large circle, or double half-circles.  (This was done for a “hands on” class the third meeting, and it made a difference.) Tables are barriers that can increase aggression toward those on the other side.  Removing the tables and forming even a lopsided circle shifts the participant’s eye contact to those around the room. Surprisingly, it also helps people hear what others say, as they can also see the lips of the speaker.

Let me know how they work for you. I’d love to hear your stories or comments.

Now please go to my next blog entry for a description of the “Interventions” you can use during a training session – or in any meeting.





August 21, 2010


Filed under: meeting facilitation,Uncategorized — Roberta's Rules of Order, author @ 10:42 am

As the leader of a group, you are frequently faced with where sit to lead a meeting.  Unfortunately most conference tables are large and bulky rectangles or ovals, not usually round tables, the best option for engagement in meetings.

Round tables are best for small group meetings of about a dozen people because of the eye contact it allows.  Also, as the leader there is no “head” of the table, creating a more egalitarian environment.  This is important if you want the meeting of staff colleagues or board members to be more participative.

When there is a longer, large rectangular table, or those pushed together in to a rectangle or square, it’s also possible to create a similar tone by NOT sitting at the head of the table.  (See diagram)

At a recent meeting I was facilitating in a library, the large group broke smaller groups and moved from a soft chairs arranged in a large oval to rectangular library tables that sat about 10 people each.  Five guest speakers were each asked to “host” a different table for informal conversation.  EVERY guest chose to sit at the “head” of the table.

The tendency for the leader to take the “head” or “power” position may be intentional, to show their authority nonverbally, or accidental due to not knowing or thinking about the group dynamics.

When a leader is at the “short end” or head of the table, and all participants are at the “long ends”. At least 50% of the group is 50% further away from the leader.  It’s not always easy to see or hear the speaker well from the far end of the table.  You may have noticed that those further away from you often become more disengaged that the rest.

Next time you have a choice to lead from the “end” or the “center” of a table, try the center and notice that you (and they) will have better eye contact.  You will be closer to those you are leading.

I urge you to give it a try.  Please let me know if you notice any differences in the participation or quality of the meeting.

July 2, 2010


Filed under: Uncategorized — Roberta's Rules of Order, author @ 10:23 am

In the mid-1980’s I developed a quality improvement process in a large bank called Work Improvement Network (WIN) resembling Quality Circles.  Quality Circles include problem-solving methods used in the US aerospace industry that were taught to the Japanese and adapted to their consensus culture. (US manufacturing then learned the group approach from the Japanese and adapted it back to our culture.)   Other than manufacturing, only a few banks and service organizations with no products had Quality Circles at the time.  What did I learn that is still useful today – and could be helpful to you?


My primary insight was that problems are situations that cannot always be “solved” and disappear.  However, they can often be reduced to a “livable level”.  I also learned that best way to solve a problem is to FIRST understand and agree that the situation IS a problem. Then find the root causes (what’s keeping it stuck) that can be addressed.

Interaction Associates, a consulting firm headquartered in Boston with offices in San Francisco and Belfast, Ireland teaches: “if you can’t get people to agree on the problem, you’ll have (a LOT of) trouble getting them to agree on the solution(s).   Watch debates on C-SPAN of Parliament or Congress, and you’ll see this in practice.


The key is to not jump to solutions (a tendency in the US culture) but state the situation factually and reach agreement on the problem BEFORE seeking a solution.   Interaction Associates calls it working within the “problem space” before the “solution space”.  If this sounds too “spacey”, think about putting the majority of a group’s effort into stating and agreeing on the problem. This allows a group to agree on something (exercising those agreement muscles) before proceeding.

This opens the door to find out what is REALLY going on, such as what is causing the problem.  Isolating and understanding the key cause is the “mother lode” to finding the right solution or multiple solutions.

Think of reducing a problem or seeking new opportunities, rather than finding the ‘magic bullet” called a solution.  Some problems may never be “solved” but the situation can be improved.


From working with about 30 WIN teams a week, I observed the following:

(1) People often want to solve the problems they have no control over.  Understanding the problem first can lead a group to refer the issue to another more appropriate group with the expertise and authority to improve the situation.

(2) The problem, or something similar, has probably been solved somewhere else.  Researching competitors and looking into an organization’s own history will yield good information.  Was there a time this problem didn’t exist her and why?  Is there a group or organization that has tackled this situation and improved it?

Please comment: What are your observations about problem solving and the “best practices” you’ve discovered?

May 4, 2010


Filed under: meeting facilitation,Uncategorized — Roberta's Rules of Order, author @ 8:09 am
Tags: , , ,

What is a “straw poll” and why is in useful in groups that meet to make decisions?

Legend says that during the Renaissance, when someone wanted to know which way the wind was blowing, they would through a piece of straw in the air and watch the way it was blown around and down to the ground. This was simple and very practical, particularly before wind meters were invented. The same concept can be used in meetings.

Although Robert’s Rules of Order does not allow straw polls (who knows why?), they are one of the most effective ways to tell “which way the (opinion) wind is blowing” in a group.

When a committee or team brings a proposal to a larger group that may result in a motion passed by the group – a non-binding straw poll is a great way to find out the opinion of the group before lengthy discussions and win/lose voting. (See Roberta’s Rules of Order and the companion QuickStart Guide).

Most people think of a straw poll as a “yes/no” non-biding vote. The group leader may say: “Before we vote, let’s see where people stand on this issue with a non-biding straw poll. How many in favor, how many not?” While this may indicate where group members stand on an issue, it doesn’t provide information about their thinking, and can serve to polarize the group.

As an alternative, there are simple and more productive methods involving multiple-choice straw polls. Here’s one…

Give everyone in the meeting pieces of paper (cut from construction paper) in three colors: red, yellow and green. When a straw poll is taken, members hold up the card that reflects their opinion:

Red Stop. I don’t think we should proceed as stated/written
Yellow Caution. I think we need more information or analysis
Green Go. I think we should approve this “as is”.

After this poll is taken quickly by a show of colors, it’s easy to know “which way the wind is blowing” and have more productive discussions.

When the majority are showing GREEN, ask: “For those who are YELLOW, what would need to change or improve to go ahead? (Repeat the same for those showing RED.) Depending upon how many RED and YELLOW cards are shown, the proposal may need to be reworked.

What other techniques have you seen or used in groups to that avoid wasting time discussing items most people have agreed upon?

April 6, 2010


Filed under: meeting facilitation,Uncategorized — Roberta's Rules of Order, author @ 8:25 am
Tags: ,

A wise colleague of mine, Rae Levine, once told me that the word “discuss” is a dangerous word to see on an agenda.  Discussion is intended to imply sharing ideas, give and take, looking at both (only two?) sides of a situation.  Sadly, this is not usually what occurs. Often it becomes an argument among members of a group who are “for and against” an idea.

Lets go back to the origin of debate.  Like many meeting methods that have hung around for centuries, debating issues is popular in the Anglo-Saxon tradition that also gave us “parliamentary procedure”.

Have you ever listened to the program on an NPR station that is called “an Oxford style debate”?  People are given a “motion” or an assertion of fact, and guests are asked to speak for it or against it.  Individual arguments are eloquent, entertaining and often thought provoking, but is this practice productive in meetings?

Holding a debate generally assumes that there is a clear-cut issue and that there are two sides to support – often only two.  This assumption is the problem!  In this ever-more complex world, situations are not simple to state; there are MANY sides to ANY issue.  Focusing on two is limiting and even ludicrous.

In the best-known form of parliamentary procedure, called Robert’s Rules of Order, a motion must be stated or (figuratively) “put on the table” before a debate ensues. To have a motion stated before “discussion”, means the group is immediately stuck in a trap.   Here’s why…

Motions are most often solutions thought up by an individual or group that want to “sell it” to the rest of a decision-making body. By the time there is a motion, people almost automatically polarize into the “pros and the cons”.  I know you’ve seen this happen!

If you want to have an open dialogue replace debating an issue, in your group, how would you begin?

First, you would need to have an agreement on “the problem” (the current situation you may want to change) before seeking one or more solutions.  Interaction Associates (IA), a consulting firm with offices in Boston, San Francisco and Belfast, Ireland has been clear on this issue.  Agreement on “the problem or opportunity” must precede getting agreement on the solution (in a motion).

According to IA are three stages to structure “a discussion” in a meeting: (1) Open, (2) Narrow and (3) Close.  (For those who like bigger words, substitute (1) Generate, (2) Evaluate and (3) Eliminate.)

There are key questions that will help you guide a group through these three stages of discussion in Roberta’s Rules of Order (pages 172-177) and in the companion workbook QuickStart Guide to Roberta’s Rules (page 38-40).

The key is to start by understanding the current situation, before generating solution that will impact the future.  Here are a few key questions:

Open: How would you describe the current situation (the facts and perceptions)?

Narrow: Does the situation represent more than one problem (break it down)?

Close: What is the primary cause of this situation (what’s keeping it a problem0?

I’d encourage you to “suspend the rules” if you’re operating under parliamentary procedure, and substitute a three-stage dialogue for a two dimensional debate.

Please give it a try and let me know how this approach

February 28, 2010


Filed under: meeting facilitation — Roberta's Rules of Order, author @ 8:02 pm
Tags: , , ,

One of the cardinal rules of meetings is that they should start “on time”.  This is assumed to be the moment that the meeting was announced to begin – like 8:00 AM.  Have you even been to a meeting that was suppose to start at 8:00 AM and looked around?  Is “everyone in their places with bright shining faces” like in the school rhyme? Not often.

Being “on time” is often a cultural issue.  The dominant culture of the US was originally Western European – and this still influences our meeting norms.  Typically, punctuality is a virtue and tardiness is … well… close to a crime.  When everyone is from the same culture – or similar – then “on time” has a shared meaning.  In multicultural situations, like most business meetings, “on time” is subject to many interpretations.  Different cultures have a different “take” on time. Now that minorities are the “new majority” in some states, so we can anticipate changes in these norms.

While linear time is important to business management, it may not be equally important to everyone in a business environment. Unfortunately, those who don’t follow the “norm” of a linear time culture, intentionally or not, are often chastised.  A “minority” woman I worked with years ago was often late to work due to driving daily across town to take her child to day-care at the height of commute traffic.  Those who didn’t know her situation this assumed her tardiness was cultural.

Here are a few observations – have you seen these occur in your workplace?

  • Not everyone is consistently “on time”
  • Not everyone will think being late is a problem (“they’ll start without me”).
  • When those who missed an important discussion try to “catch up”, others get frustrated.
  • People who miss participating in a decision may try to reverse it.

If these are generally true, how can we work with this in meetings? Commuting to work on public transit or by driving is unpredictable.  Almost everyone has trouble knowing what each day’s commute will bring. Perhaps it’s time to give everyone a break from the pressure of punctuality.  Here are three suggestions:

  1. If you want a meeting to begin at 9:00 AM announce a start time of 8:45 AM. Have a “gradual start” to the meeting by using the first 15 minutes to “catch up” with something to eat and drink.  (Rotating who brings food or picks up coffee is a good way to involve people who will quickly become heroes.)  Ask people to “chip in” or take a turn treating to share the expense.
  2. At 9:00AM start the meeting with a “check in” (30 seconds to 1 minute each) for everyone to (1) either make an announcement or (2)  “brag” about something good that has happened, professionally or personally, or (3) give an “unsolicited kudos” to someone else (everyone can think of something!).  This will give people a time to arrive and get settled.  (Someone who wants to share news or hopes to be acknowledged will not usually be late.)  Also, this gets the meeting off to a positive and often light-hearted start
  3. Structure the meeting to “ease into” the most important topics.  Make sure they are at least a half-hour into the agenda – and are completed before the meeting is scheduled to end. (Watch for more about ending meetings in a future Roberta’s Rules Blog.)

There are many other ways to start a meeting that acknowledges different norms about time – and works with it rather than against it.  Let’s take the pressure off everyone by not valuing punctuality over productivity.

What do you think?  Please let me know your thoughts – whether you agree or not – by commenting on this Blog.

(c)Alice Cochran, 2010

January 5, 2010


Filed under: meeting facilitation — Roberta's Rules of Order, author @ 10:01 pm
Tags: ,


I’m notorious for re-arranging meeting rooms –in hotels, classrooms, community centers, clubhouses and living rooms – you name it.  (You’re not going to do that again, are you???) Yes, count on it. Why?  Most meetings rooms are not set up for maximum eye contact.  Lack of productive interaction and engagement in the meeting can result.

Why is eye contact essential in face-to-face (and video conference) meetings? Reading facial expressions and reactions, including the movement of people’s eyes and eyebrows, gives us clues to understand them. We aren’t aware of how much active listening (from hearing) in meetings is dependent upon seeing people when they speak – and reading their lips.

Typically many tables are placed end-to-end, preventing eye contact with anyone beyond the person on either side.  Sometimes it’s a long “U Shape” (the bowling alley).  Even a short “U Shape” beyond a few tables is problematic.

For some reason hotels can’t grasp that tables don’t need to touch (and that attached “skirts” are unnecessary.)  It also seems to make some people a bit uneasy when tables don’t touch.  (OK, let one corner touch– but only that.)

At a university’s meeting of 16 subject-matter experts invited to shape the design of a management series, the room was initially set up as an “open square” of eight tables. (Two chairs at one table, on one side is ideal.) The meeting was intended to be interactive with an open sharing of information.  Although the square was a good start, people could only see those seated next to them, and across from them, but not the whole group.

As a simple last-minute solution (without disrupting things too much) I pulled each pair of tables to an angle with only the inner corners touching (yes!).  This resulted in an open octagon shape that allowed:

•    More elbow room for each person (on the right or left)

•    Eye contact with the entire group (and ability to see those speaking)

•    Easier movement into and out of the chairs for everyone

•    A feeling of connection to colleagues in the room – and more interaction

It takes a conscious effort to buck habits and arrange the room differently to foster engagement. For anyone wanting to encourage interaction and idea sharing, it pays to do something as simple as moving tables and chairs to facilitate maximum eye contact. (A diagram is available on page 29 in the QuickStart Guide to Roberta’s Rules at

Do you have a “pet peeve” about the meetings you attend?  Please comment and I’ll suggest possible ways change it.  Together we can improve the world, one meeting at a time. or

November 29, 2009


Filed under: Uncategorized — Roberta's Rules of Order, author @ 5:54 am
Tags: , ,

I’d like to begin this web log by expressing my distress about the lack of civility we’ve all observed (or heard about) recently in town hall meetings.  Suddenly the public place where US citizens have come for decades to express their opinions have become a setting for rudeness and roughness.

Representative Joe Wilson of South Carolina said he had a “town-hall moment” when he shouted “you lie!” at President Obama during his nationally televised address to Congress.

Really!  Isn’t it bad enough to have disrespected the President without using the town hall meeting to justify it?  What does it say about public discourse when town hall meetings are used as an excuse for this behavior? When did outrageous rudeness become expected and accepted at these meetings?

Unfortunately this situation can be seen around the world as an example of the deterioration of the democratic process. Politicians dread them because they are a free-for all. Do you feel, as I do, that this has gone too far?

What if those attending these meetings would have to follow some fair “courtesy guidelines” in order to be given an opportunity to speak?  Here are a few possibilities:

Suggested Courtesy Guidelines:

  • Express your opinion freely, but without demeaning others whose opinions differ.
  • Speak in a tone of voice (not shouting) that is respectful of others, and in a way you would want others to speak to you (not accusing or attacking).
  • Speak only for the agreed upon number of minutes before sitting down.
  • Clap, if you wish, to express your support; please listen and remain silent if you disagree (no booing or shouting).

I believe there is a way to restore respectful behavior and decorum to public meetings, if concerned politicians and citizens take a stand against rudeness.  Having guidelines or ground rules are in the best interest of all involved.   However without consequences, we will continue to see the same behavior. It’s time for  the microphones (and TV cameras) to be turned off for those who cannot be civil to others in a civic meeting. Let’s work together to earn the term “civil society” again.


Create a free website or blog at