Roberta's Rules: Meetings and More

April 6, 2010


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


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