Robert + His Rules

Who is this Robert and why do so many people follow his meeting rules?


Official meetings across the world still sample generously from the rules of Robert: General H.M. Robert, that is. The General’s Rules are particularly handy when we are trying to run virtual meetings where non-verbal social cues can be hard to read or trapped behind a frozen screen.

The General first set out his rules in 1876. His Pocket Manual of Rules of Order For Deliberative Assemblies was designed to bring the order of parliamentary law into the mayhem of ordinary meetings. Henry Martyn was driven to lay out his Rules after a nasty experience trying to corral a chaotic church hall meeting.

While some sticklers still consult the General’s original words, others rely on any number of updated books or the official robertsrules website. Most of us semi-obediently stagger around the rules as we go – some Robert is better than no Robert. Our willy nilly approach wilts, however, when it comes to dramatic meeting meltdowns or the timing and wording of the more formal resolutions, motions, ayes and nays.

General H.M. Robert would no doubt shake his head at we, the 21st Century members of the ‘large class of the community, who are unfamiliar with parliamentary usages and are unwilling to devote much study to the subject, but would be glad with little labor to learn enough to enable them to take part in meetings of deliberative assemblies without fear of being out of order.’



Are most meeting attendees still unwilling to devote much study to the subject of parliamentary usages? Check. Are we willing to put in a little labor to learn the rules? Hmm. Depends on how scrappy the meetings get. Do we have a fear of being out of order? Sure. When we’re worried that our disorder will lead to trouble down the road.

We are not worthy, but perhaps The General will afford us a few pointers:

Obtaining The Floor
In our bossy world, people are not so orderly in waiting for their turn on the floor. Perhaps you, too, have been at meetings where everyone talks loudly over each other until fatigue sets in and someone grumpily suggests moving on, for now. Here’s how General Robert we should manage our meeting conversations …

Before addressing the assembly, one must first obtain the floor. In a formal setting, this will involve standing up and addressing the Chair: ‘Madame President’ or ‘Mr. Chairman,’ for instance.

i.Then: ‘The Chair recognizes Ms. Poltuce.’

ii.If a question is up for discussion and multiple people want to speak, someone who has previously spoken on this question cannot barge back in until others have had their say.

iii. And what if the Alpha Mouth tries to flout the rules and talk again? The Chair should have something to say about it: “Sir. You are out of order. Ms. Poltuce has the floor.”



Questions of Privilege
This category deals with the rights of those who are at the meeting. Privilege issues might be a ruckus in the room, one person turning up the heat (in person) or using a flashing light virtual background to the discomfort of another. General Robert says accusations made by one attendee versus another are to be considered before everything except everyone’s favourites: motions to Fix The Time To Adjourn, and Adjourning.

Laying on The Table
This is something you might well feel like doing while others prattle on. In the world of General Robert, however, ‘lay it on the table’ is what the group decides to do with an issue that will be put aside for the short term. Never mind the cold, modern Idea Parking Lot. Robert’s issues will lay in plain sight on the table – temporarily out of mind, but never out of sight. I move that the question of X lie on the table. 

Decorum in Debate
 ‘In debate,’ The General writes, ‘a member must confine himself to the question before the assembly, and avoid personalities.’  Would that it happened.

In speaking of others during debate, Robert notes that rather than using names we should reference, for instance: ‘the member who spoke last.’ Never condemn your fellow meeting members, just the consequences of their proposals. If you object to the ‘disorderly words’ of another, you should write the words down verbatim then read them back to their source. If he or she denies having spoken the words, then others are to take a vote on whether your scribbled words are an accurate quote or not.



The Language of Voting
• ‘As many are in favour of the motion say Aye’
• ‘As many are opposed, say No.’
• ‘The motion is carried – the resolution is adopted.’

The Chair
The Chair is gifted with a long list of rules which include not interrupting the speech of a person who is in order. On average, each person should have the floor for 10 minutes maximum. The Chair should not take sides whilst running the meeting. If the Chair wants to bring up a weighted point, he or she should temporarily call someone else to the Chair position.

Over so soon? ‘The motion is carried; this assembly stands adjourned.’


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