Civil Discourse Doesn’t Happen by Accident

Having rules set out in advance is much better than being told that you cannot speak on a motion, just because someone says so. That’s too personal, understandably upsetting, and Robert’s Rules helps us avoid it.

Civil Discourse Doesn’t Happen by Accident
Photo by Mark Duffel / Unsplash

I rise in favor of Robert’s Rules of Order. Often criticized as arcane and cumbersome, it actually serves as a marvelous guide to how people should engage in healthy debate when they gather together.

One objection to Robert’s Rules is that it doesn't allow people to be themselves. It’s seen as jilted, stilted, and wilted; it doesn’t promote casual, conversational engagement.

two men laughing white sitting on chairs
Photo by Helena Lopes / Unsplash

This objection is unfair. First, for small gatherings, its committee rules make the structure less rigid and more conversational.

Second, for large assemblies, casual conversation is impossible. So the alternative to Robert’s Rules — or something like it — is not friendly engagement but chaos. In fact, Robert (the man himself) wrote his Rules after seeing a Baptist church try to have a congregational meeting. As an extrovert, I don't mind talking over people to get my point across. However, a free-for-all gabfest fails to ensure that all positions, especially those of the minority, are heard. Robert’s Rules addresses this issue by providing a way to ensure that all voices are heard — even quiet ones.

Another advantage of Robert’s Rules is its facilitation of quick and easy consensus, when appropriate, and the ability to resolve thorny issues, when things get more complicated. Rules seem arcane and unimportant . . . until they are essential for the smooth functioning of a meeting. Then we see how necessary they are.

Let’s consider calling the question, which sounds strange to unpracticed ears. What is a question, and why is anyone calling it? Calling the question is a request to vote on the main topic under consideration. But this explanation just raises another question: Why should anyone vote on whether to vote?

person holding white and silver-colored pocket watch
Photo by Veri Ivanova / Unsplash

I’ve got this one for the team: Stopping debate limits the freedom of members to speak on an issue. As such, there is a higher, two-thirds threshold for calling the question than there is for the simple majority vote on a topic at hand.

Sure, this rule may seem strange, but it makes sense: In faculty meetings or Presbytery meetings, I find that even professors and pastors find it difficult to stand before their peers and speak on an issue. And that’s people who speak for a living! Imagine a homeowner association, composed of many people who do not speak for a living.

Giving people time to speak — indeed, to find their voices to speak — helps generate a better outcome, in two ways. First, sometimes introverts have the best ideas. Second, even if you have to hear the same thing again and again by different voices, letting people speak shows how much they matter to others. It makes people feel more connected to the organization as a whole. That’s a small price to pay for such a positive outcome. No one wants to attend a meeting to speak on an issue only to be outmaneuvered and prevented from speaking. A higher threshold for calling the question helps minimize this possibility.

Now consider postponing definitely or postponing indefinitely. Sometimes someone has a good idea but has bad timing. How should an assembly respond? Being able to say that a motion should be considered at the next meeting communicates to the maker of the motion that the idea is worth considering, just not now. Specifying an exact time shows that the assembly does not want to sweep the issue under the rug but wants to consider it when it is appropriate to do so. Conversely, sometimes people offer bad ideas on sensitive topics. No one wants to vote the motion down, because rejecting it would be too painful or controversial. Postponing indefinitely allows the assembly to sidestep the question with delicacy. (A less delicate way is to refuse to consider the question.)

pen on white lined paper selective focus photography
Photo by Aaron Burden / Unsplash

Keeping accurate minutes is perhaps one of the most underappreciated requirements of Robert’s Rules. In disputes, whether in a deliberative assembly or in everyday life, referring back to what was said becomes crucial. Having accurate minutes helps. (If only we had accurate minutes for some of our everyday conversations!) Because Robert’s Rules requires the approval of the previous meeting’s minutes, everyone has an opportunity to reflect on, and endorse, what was decided. Good minutes hold people accountable for promised performance. If someone, especially an officer, fails to fulfill a directive, approved minutes can make clear what that person should have done. Good minutes also serve as a to-do list for the future.

If reading the minutes seems like tiresome drudgery, the problem may not be with Robert’s Rules, but with the meetings themselves. Perhaps the meetings are mere window dressing, and the real decisions happen behind closed doors. If so, that’s really bad, but for the organization — not for Robert’s Rules.

Finally — and, yes, the following remark is very nerdy — let me commend the most recent edition of Robert’s Rules of Order for its updated reference method, which now resembles the Book of Church Order of the Presbyterian Church in America rather than a textbook.

red apple fruit on four pyle books
Photo by Element5 Digital / Unsplash

Though I delight in Robert’s Rules, I am by no means a professional. I have the hardback copy for public reference, but I often search for a word or phrase on the Kindle version of the book on an iPad. I also think the ordering of motions is at times challenging, and keeping in mind whether or not something is debatable can be tricky, too.

But having rules set out in advance is much better than being told that you cannot speak on a motion, just because someone says so. That’s too personal, understandably upsetting, and Robert’s Rules helps us avoid it.