Civil Discourse Doesn’t Happen by Accident

Civil Discourse Doesn’t Happen by Accident

Written by James E. Bruce |
Tuesday, November 21, 2023

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.

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.

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?

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.

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