How To Manage Business Meeting Debate

There are ideals in the business meeting world—and one of them is that just the right members will weigh in for just the right amount of time on just the right motions. Contention is nonexistent. Everyone gets a voice, and the meeting ends happily. Pie in the sky, I know.

So, in the real world of difficult issues and disagreement, what’s a chairperson to do? Yes—everyone who attends board meetings or business meetings has a role to play here, but if you’re leading a meeting, there are ways to facilitate discussion that can keep the membership satisfied and accomplish business in an orderly fashion.

1. Allow debate at the right time.

If parliamentary procedure runs on one basic idea, it’s that there’s an appropriate time for every element of a business meeting—including debate. If you’re in charge, it is critical that you manage any motions according to the traditional six-step process. In the six-step lifecycle of a motion, debate (also called discussion) is step five.

(1) The Chair recognizes a member, (2) that member makes a motion, (3) another member seconds the motion, (4) the Chair repeats the motion, then… (5) the Chair invites discussion and, that’s the cue for discussion to begin.

2. Recognize all speakers the same way.

There’s another great parliamentary procedure concept in play during debate, and that’s impartiality. The Chair must exemplify this virtue. Trust me—I’ve watched even the most beautifully crafted motions unravel as the Chair has shown favoritism during debate. You don’t want this to happen—so how does the Chair successfully navigate discussion without showing his or her own bias?

Here are my top tips:

  • Say the same phrase every single time you recognize a member. If they’re on your side of the issue or not—it doesn’t matter. Recognize members by name only if you know everyone’s name. If not, recognize them in a neutral way (“the member”). Also, it’s fine to talk about yourself as the Chair in the third person. I recommend saying, “The Chair recognizes [Member Name].” Or, “The Chair recognizes the member at Microphone 1.” Or simply, “The Chair recognizes the member.”
  • Say the same phrase every single time a member finishes speaking. Do not show approval or disapproval of anyone’s comments by elaborating, repeating, or chiming in with your own opinion. Just show generic gratitude for the contribution and move on to the next speaker. I recommend simply saying, “Thank you.”

3. Limit the number of speakers and amount of time for debate.

You will ruin your reputation as a leader if you let the membership debate without any controls on who can talk and how long they can talk.

It is good practice in a large meeting for microphones to be placed near the front of the member seating—one for those who would like to speak in favor of the proposed motion and one for those speaking against the motion. Then, the Chair should invite members (no guests or visitors) to line up. In small groups, it’s easier—the Chair can ask “pro” speakers to raise their hands and then ask those interested in speaking on the “con” side to raise their hands.

Then—this isn’t complicated—alternate back and forth. Just take turns allowing both sides to share their arguments. Recognize a “pro” speaker and then a “con” speaker.

So, how long should debate last? This is the million-dollar question, and Robert’s Rules has an answer: Each member of a group can speak two times, and up to ten minutes per time on each motion. My opinion is that that rule isn’t the best. Allowing Joe Talksforever potentially twenty! minutes at the mic will lengthen your meeting considerably. And doing that for every person will likely impact both attendance and the willingness of individuals to present good arguments.

So, I would encourage you to consider the adoption of a special rule that limits one of the following:

  • The total time spent discussing one topic
  • The total time each person may speak
  • The total number of members who may speak on an issue
  • The total number of members who may speak per side on an issue

Read more here on how to enact limits like these and how to handle a situation where there are members interested in speaking on only one side of an issue.

4. Allow interruption only at appropriate times.

And finally, don’t allow interruption—unless your parliamentary authority says it’s fine. Meetings are to be run without chaos—in an efficient, orderly manner that follows rules. No matter how loud or lovely a member is, don’t let them holler out whenever they want.

The rules do allow for some motions to interrupt business—but it’s a select few. Download this Motions Quick Guide infographic to learn which motions have “interrupting” privilege. And if you’re the Chair, manage any inappropriate interruptions by kindly but firmly encouraging members to wait until they’ve been recognized in the proper order.

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