I’ve spent a lot of time in meetings where Robert’s Rules of Order were the rules of the day — in student government, in state and national student organizations, on various academic committees, and so on. By necessity, and because I’m a process dork, I paid a lot of attention to Robert’s in those environments, so when I was first asked to help chair the annual plenaries of the United States Student Association a while back I said yes.

It appears I’ve done a good enough job with the USSA gig to keep getting invited back — this summer’s conference was my sixth in a row, I think — and every year afterwards student government folks ask me for tips on chairing meetings. Those requests are now coming in often enough that it’s probably past time for me to set down some of my thoughts in a semi-organized way.

So here we go.

The first thing worth saying about Roberts’ Rules is that it’s a tool. It exists to serve as a mechanism for facilitating democratic decisionmaking in groups, particularly large ones. It’s not the only way to run a meeting, and in many instances it’s not the best way, but if used properly, it can be incredibly effective — and yes, even empowering.

To explain why, I want to go back and unpack one word from the previous paragraph: decisionmaking. Robert’s isn’t primarily a tool for managing discussion, and it’s not particularly useful in facilitating open-ended debate. That weakness is a necessary side-effect of one of the system’s great strengths, it turns out, because Robert’s is designed to allow consideration only of clearly stated questions, and to allow only one such question to be taken up at a time.

In its essence, Robert’s is a procedure for breaking up the work of a body into a Choose Your Own Adventure book. At each step in the meeting, the group can select Path A or Path B or Path C, each of which will present the group with a different set of choices at the next stage of the process. The framework is everything. Nothing can happen outside of it.

There are several obvious downsides to this setup. First, there’s the fact that there’s pretty much no room for noodling. You can’t hold a brainstorming session under Robert’s. You can’t really do a temperature check. It’s tricky, though not impossible, to process emotional issues.

The second big downside is that because the system is so intimidating, it often leads to situations in which a small minority who are comfortable with the process wind up dominating the proceedings, thwarting the majority’s will, and making everyone feel like crap.

Unfortunately, that’s the experience many of us have with Robert’s — of a few nerds jamming their agenda through while everyone else gets more and more bored, more alienated, and more disgusted with the whole situation. And that’s a real shame, because when it’s done right, a meeting held under Robert’s Rules can be a thing of beauty.

In its ideal form, Robert’s forces the group to be clear about what it’s trying to do, and to go through the process of doing it in a sensible, organized, streamlined way. Even better, the system has the flexibility to allow the group to alter its approach or its agenda on the fly while still maintaining focus. And crucially, it’s designed to do all this while respecting the will of the group’s majority, the interests of its various minority factions, and the fact that who falls into which camp can change at any time.

The heart of Robert’s Rules is the following cycle of action:

  • A member of the group proposes that the group do something.
  • The group considers the proposal.
  • If anyone in the group wants to change the proposal, they say so, and the group considers that.
  • When the group is done considering and changing the proposal, they vote on it.
  • Someone proposes something else, and the cycle begins again.
  • When the work of the group is done, the cycle, and the meeting, ends.

Simple.

So if it’s so simple, why does it take an 816-page book to explain it, and months of study to figure out how to do it properly? Mostly because although Robert’s basic premises are straightforward, implementing those premises in a fair and reasonable way is complicated.

And that’s the weird paradox of Robert’s Rules: It’s confusing and alienating precisely because it tries so hard to be fair and inclusive.

Here’s an example: Imagine a simplified Robert’s Rules of order in which every question was settled by majority vote. That would be a breeze to understand and easy to implement, but it would also allow narrow majorities to beat up on everybody else. And you don’t want that. You don’t want that because it’s not fair and it’s not reasonable and it would bring out the worst in everybody. Some questions can properly be settled by a majority vote, but not all. Some actions should be able to be initiated by a single member, and others shouldn’t be allowed unless everyone agrees. (Some shouldn’t be allowed even if everyone agrees.) And it’s the task of Robert’s Rules to figure out which actions go in which category, and how to set things up so that the procedures for all the categories are sensible ones.

Here’s an example of the kind of question Robert’s is concerned with: Should you be able to cut off debate with a majority vote? While it seems reasonable on the surface, it’s probably a bad idea. If almost half of the body wants to keep talking, and there’s been time set aside for the discussion, that discussion should be allowed to continue. More debate is likely to lessen the chance of bad feelings later and to give everyone more opportunities to find common ground. On a closely divided question it could even change the outcome. Given all that, Robert’s says you need a two-thirds majority to end debate.

Another tricky question: Should you be able to reconsider a decision by a majority vote? On the one hand, it seems pretty clear that you should. If a majority wants to reverse itself, it should have that power. At the same time, though, if you set it up so that anyone could call for a re-vote at any time, everyone who ever lost a close decision would move to reconsider it the instant that one of their opponents went to the bathroom. Progress would grind to a halt, no issue would ever be seen as settled, and contentious meetings would become even more difficult and acrimonious. So Robert’s says that while you can reconsider with a simple majority vote, you can only make a motion to reconsider if you voted for the policy you’re trying to overturn.

There are hundreds of these distinctions to be made, and the bulk of Robert’s Rules is devoted to making and explaining them. My copy (Robert’s Rules of Order Newly Revised, 10th Edition — I haven’t bought the eleventh edition yet) lists forty-four different kinds of motions. Forty-four kinds of motions, each with its own subtleties. That’s because the Robert’s project, in a nutshell, is to imagine everything that a decisionmaking body might possibly want to do, and to figure out whether it should be able to do it, and if so, how. (This is also why the book gets longer with every edition — because people keep coming up with new stuff to do.)

And although the idea of using an 816-page book to run a meeting is more than a little ludicrous, I have to say that as a chair I’m incredibly grateful that Robert’s is so comprehensive. It’s hard to be fair when you’re improvising, and even harder to be seen as fair. Every issue that’s not resolved in Robert’s is an issue that’s left to the chair’s discretion, and every decision left to the chair’s discretion is a decision that’s taken out of the hands of the group. The proper role of the chair is facilitating meetings, not leading them, and just as Robert’s aims to break down everything the body might possibly want to do into a series of clear, sequential choices, it likewise aims to give chairs a flowchart to guide them through every step of every possible thing that could happen at a meeting.

Robert’s Rules, again, exist to provide a decisionmaking process that is robust, consistent, flexible, and fair. Robert’s isn’t the only system that aims to do that, of course, and it doesn’t claim to be — the very first chapter of my copy includes a discussion of the kinds of meetings it’s not suited for, and the book provides suggestions throughout for ways in which procedure can be simplified and streamlined where appropriate.

In certain kinds of meetings, however, when everyone in the group is familiar with the Robert’s structure and comfortable actively participating within it, it can be an incredibly effective, even liberatory, tool.

Where those conditions are absent, of course, it’s a recipe for disaster.

Because Robert’s is so complex it can be utterly bewildering, even for the experienced. As noted above, the very provisions that are intended to ensure fairness and respect for the rights of all parties can make it possible for a savvy, aggressive clique to manipulate a meeting to their own advantage. And when group members are confused or alienated by Robert’s they often check out, with the result that their voices and perspectives are silenced.

So how do we make sure that doesn’t happen? How do we make Robert’s a force for good? I’ve got a few suggestions for chairs, and a few suggestions for participants.

First, some advice for prospective chairs:

Remember that Robert’s exists to facilitate participation and empowerment, and that it’s up to you, more than anyone else, to ensure that result. Set a tone of inclusivity from the beginning. Familiarize the members of the body with the process before you begin, and go back and review after you get underway. Review more often than you think you need to, and explain more than seems necessary. Check in with the group when things get muddled, or when you get the sense that folks are shutting down. Put on the brakes when appropriate, and don’t let the more experienced steamroll the others. Encourage questions about process, even when a question isn’t any more coherent than “What the hell is going on?” Remember the power of a brief, well-timed recess to get a situation unstuck, and don’t hesitate to suggest one when it seems like it might be useful.

Above all? Slow down. Slow down. Slow down. Setting a deliberate, careful pace while everyone’s getting acclimated and reverting to caution when things get heated will save everyone huge amounts of time and aggravation in the long run.

Now some thoughts for participants:

Remember that Robert’s Rules are there to protect your rights, and those of the other members of the group. If you don’t understand what’s going on, or you don’t know how to intervene to do what you want to do, speak up. Ask for help, ask for clarification, ask for advice. Call for recesses when they’d be useful, and don’t freak out when things go completely off the rails. Often — not always, but usually — there’s a way to get a do-over. Ask about that too.

And here’s one final tip. Before you learn any other piece of Robert’s jargon, learn this phrase:

“I have a parliamentary inquiry.”

A parliamentary inquiry is a question about procedure, and it can be raised pretty much any time. (You can even interrupt another speaker with one, if the question needs immediate attention, though I wouldn’t recommend making a habit of it.)

Here’s how it works. You raise your hand, go to the microphone, or do whatever you do in your meetings to get the chair to recognize you. When you’re recognized, you say “I have a parliamentary inquiry.” The chair will invite you to state your inquiry, and then you ask your question. Any question about procedure can be asked as a parliamentary inquiry, and it can be asked in any form. You can ask what the body is voting on, or what’s being debated, or what the motion that was just made was, or how many votes are needed for passage. Anything. You can even ask the chair how to do something you don’t know how to do, and it is the chair’s obligation to tell you.

Now, bear in mind that you might not be able to do what you want to do immediately, and that some requests can’t be granted at all. Robert’s disallows certain actions, and limits others to specific circumstances. But with very few exceptions, if you don’t understand what’s going on or you don’t know how to use Robert’s to do something, you can use a parliamentary inquiry to figure out where things stand and what your options are.

Remember: The chair works for you, and it’s their job to help you do your job.

And you can tell ‘em I said so.

Note | I’m going to write a follow-up post giving more detailed advice about how to use particular motions and maneuvers to advance the project of using Robert’s effectively, and I’m also thinking about doing a Q&A post where I tackle issues raised by readers. If anyone has anything they’d like me to cover in either of those pieces, ask away in comments.