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Robert's Rules on Basic Motions

Even though it's the nature of meetings to have more said than done, Robert's Rules helps keep things on track by requiring that no discussion be undertaken until somebody proposes an idea for action. It's through motions that everything your group ever accomplishes gets its start. The length of time you discuss something and the ultimate decision your group makes are both based on your members' use and understanding of the nature of the different types of motions, their relationships to each other, and how the different motions are best used as your tools for effective decision-making.

Until a motion is made, seconded, and stated by the chair, no discussion is in order. This rule of "motion before discussion" saves valuable meeting time. When you start off with a definite proposal — "I move that . . ." — your group discusses the motion's merits and all the details necessary to make a decision. And during the discussion, you and the other members are free to alter your motion as much as necessary before reaching the final decision. This process is much more productive than just starting off jabbering about some vague idea hoping to work it out as you go, and then getting around to making a motion summarizing what you think you may have just proposed.

Motions come in all types and sizes, but they fall into a couple basic categories:

  • A main motion introduces a new subject for discussion and action. A main motion says: Let's do this about that. The main motion is the starting point on the way to making a group decision.

  • Secondary motions offer different approaches to consider in the discussion of the main motion. A secondary motion says: Let's do that this way. Secondary motions fall into one of the three classes:

    • Subsidiary motions apply directly to a pending main motion (or pending secondary motion) and help the group arrive at a final decision on the main motion. A subsidiary motion says: Let's do this along with the main motion.

      For example, the motion to Refer the main motion to a committee. You use it when you don't want to spend all night talking about something that could be done at another time by people who are interested in working out the details.

    • Privileged motions deal with things relating to the comfort of the assembly or other situations so important they may interrupt pending business and must be decided immediately by the chair or by the members without debate. A privileged motion says: Let's do this even though there is a pending main motion.

    • Incidental motions are motions that generally deal with procedures and help process other motions. An incidental motion says: Let's do this to better handle the pending motion. You use incidental motions to help the group go about conducting its business in meetings.

  • A restorative motion seeks to put things back to where they were. A restorative motion says: Let's undo this and maybe do that instead.

Brainstorming is great, but you need to do it outside of your business meeting. Time is limited, and often many decisions need to be made at the meeting in a very short time. The rule requiring you to have a motion on the floor before discussing it means that you have to be responsible and have your idea fairly well thought out before turning it over to the group for its consideration.

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