Roberta's Rules: Meetings and More

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.


May 4, 2010


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

February 28, 2010


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

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