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Robert's Rules and the Reports of Officers, Boards, and Special Committees
The Principles of Parliamentary Procedure according to Robert's Rules

Robert's Rules and Debate Decorum

Nothing stands to ruin an organization’s spirit and sense of group pride quicker than an acrimonious debate. When debate gets heated and personal, good members quit, and the antagonists generally don’t have what it takes to keep the organization going.

Nobody likes acrimony, and nothing need keep you from having a spirited debate while still keeping discussion focused on the issues. The following list contains some points to keep in mind when the soup gets thick at meetings where you talk about a dues increase or what to do with a budget surplus:

  • Listen to the other side. You expect the presiding officer to protect your right to speak even if it turns out that you’re a minority of one. You also expect the other members to hear you out and to allow you the same time as everybody else to get in your two cents’ worth. Give your fellow members their rightful turn. Listen to them — you may hear something that affects the way you think.

  • Focus on issues, not personalities. It’s best to just stick to the issues. You may disagree with the point, but you won’t feel personally attacked if everyone sticks to the issues.

  • Avoid questioning motives. It’s not a good idea to say, “Mr. Chairman, the dweeb who just spoke is obviously trying to raise the salary of the executive director because he wants to get the director fired and hire his own brother-in-law.”

    The dweeb may, in fact, be glad to see the director go, and he may indeed be working to set up a raise for the next employee, hoping it’s his brother-in-law. But when you’re in the meeting, express your opinion based on the proposal’s merits. Try saying, “Raising the salary of the executive director is unwise at this time because we haven’t yet completed the assessment of a performance review.”

  • Address remarks through the chair. One of the ways things can deteriorate quickly is by forgetting the rule that requires you to address the chair, not a member directly, during debate.

  • Use titles, not names. Things are more likely to stay impersonal if you avoid using names during debate. Refer to “the secretary” instead of “George.” Refer to “The member who offered the motion” rather than “Myrtle.” It feels a bit formal, but the idea is to keep the focus on issues, not individuals.

  • Be polite. Don’t get the floor and start reading some paper, don’t argue with the presiding officer except by legitimate appeal, and don’t do anything that otherwise disturbs the assembly.

At some point, you’ve probably been in a meeting listening to something of interest, and Mr. Sluggo behind you isn’t the least bit interested. He starts talking about how his pet parakeet is better looking than the lady at the microphone. He’s disturbing the assembly with his distracting chatter, but Robert’s Rules comes to your rescue with a way to remind Sluggo that his chatter isn’t appropriate.

If you have to handle such a disturbance and you can’t deal with it quickly and quietly in your place, rise to a Question of Privilege that the buzz and chatter are affecting your ability to hear the speaker, and let the chair help you out.

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