Nay to Robert’s Rules of Order!

For those of us trained in participatory meetings and consensus building, attending a meeting based on Robert’s Rules of Orders can come as a real shock. Here’s a case where the structure itself doesn’t maximize, and may not allow, inclusive conversation, and the decisions apparently arrived at may not be supported by everyone. It feels constraining to me to define people’s comments as proposals, when we might just be thinking out loud. Sometimes we need to hear ourselves think, or hear other’s thoughts, and see what the range of opinions could be, before we’re ready to think in terms of a “proposal”, yea or nay.

At a meeting I attended last week, soon after an idea was put forward, the moderator asked “Does anyone object?” Moving too quickly to objections doesn’t allow for divergent thinking – it prematurely calls for convergent thinking, when the full spectrum of ideas hasn’t been discussed. Some moderators may allow for longer divergence, but there’s something in the paired structure of proposal and objection that sets up the convergence. As well, anyone who does object to the idea is put on the spot, because their response is set up in advance as an opposing idea, instead of just voicing an opinion, or exploring options. People who have reservations may hesitate to express them at that point, especially if there’s a sense that they are going against the majority view.

I find the language of proposals distances us from the discussion – to me, it detracts from the immediacy of the discussion because we have to think in terms of proposals: is this a new proposal, is my comment a response to a previous proposal, has the previous proposal been decided on, if not, do I have to wait before expressing my thought? If the moderator asks these questions, then I get impatient with them for interrupting the discussion; if I have to ask myself these questions, it stifles the generativity of my thinking. If we don’t want to stifle people’s contributions, then we need to let conversation flow. Good facilitators sense when the options have been exhausted, and they can also check in with the group, i.e. “Have we explored all the options? Are you ready to make a decision?”

To me, a facilitator has done an excellent job when her role seems to be invisible, and when participants have the feeling that they arrived at their decisions by themselves. I have yet to see this kind of excellent facilitation when Robert’s Rules have been used. I’d love to hear if anyone has had a different experience.

One comment

  1. I quite agree that Robert’s Rules, if not intelligently used, can be an impediment to good, free discussion–especially general brainstorming. Fortunately, RR can also permits “suspending the Rules.” A lot depends on the skil and sensitivity of the person chairing the meeting and how much planning has gone into the agenda. But you’re right– RR serves best as a method for moving business along in an orderly and efficient manner, not as a facilitation tool..

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