It’s safe to say, I think, that we’re all more familiar with Zoom, Teams, Google Meet, and the like than we had planned on being two years ago. When it comes to parliamentary procedure and virtual meetings that use these video conference platforms, one ongoing question is whether to use the chat feature. I lean towards disabling the chat log altogether. Here’s why.
The Chat Log Violates the Basic Rules of Fair and Equal Discussion
Making decisions that reflect the majority view of a group requires fair and equal treatment of each member. Each individual member has a right to information about the motions presented and a right to debate those motions. One way that parliamentary procedure works to ensure that these rights are protected and that certain members aren’t given preferential treatment is through debate protocols.
The following are examples of speaking rules from Robert’s Rules that safeguard members’ rights.
- Each member must be recognized before speaking in debate.
- Each member can speak twice on each motion.
- Each member can speak for ten minutes both the first and second time he speaks on a motion.
- Every member must be given an opportunity to speak one time before any member speaks a second time.
In addition, standard parliamentary procedure protocols follow the practice of alternating between individuals who want to speak in favor and individuals who want to speak in opposition.
All of these rules exist with an eye toward efficient discussion that prioritizes the fair and equal treatment of each member.
It’s Very Tough To Keep Chat Fair
Unfortunately, the chat log in a virtual meeting disregards all of these protocols: anyone can speak as often as they’d like and for as long as they’d like. Nancy Negative can jump into that chat log and power off any and all comments that she wants to make about the topic on the floor and what the current speaker is saying. There’s no way to prevent her from doing this for the entire meeting, and there’s no way to ensure that other members receive equal “air time” on the chat.
Quite simply, the chat log leaves no way to regulate the flow, pace, or substance of deliberations to ensure that individual members’ rights are protected.
Now, some of you may be thinking, “But, my organization has used the chat log in some of its meetings, and everything has turned out just fine!” And yes, I’ll admit that the possibility for proper use of the chat log does exist. But successfully controlled chat is not the norm—because people can get carried away fast with access to a keyboard, especially when feelings are strong. In addition, consider what’s really gained by allowing chat. It gives people a voice—but it doesn’t guarantee the same opportunity for everyone. And it only works if everyone multitasks and reads all that chat while they listen to the audio discussion. So, the bottom line is that it can’t be counted on for proper deliberation using parliamentary procedure.
An Alternative Option
So, what works as a chat alternative? Well, I’ll reserve the details for a separate post, but in short, the raised hand icon, or the green checkmark and red X buttons in Zoom are a great place to start. Keep the chat log disabled and instruct those who want to speak to select the green checkmark for comments in favor, or the red X for comments in opposition. While this method certainly isn’t perfect and definitely slows the pace of the discussion a little, it respects the parliamentary procedure concept of being recognized before speaking and allows the Chair to recognize members in an orderly fashion.
In summary, the chat feature is risky because it weakens the controls that are essential for running a meeting with order. Virtual meetings can feel awkward enough without the worry of unmanaged chat and the potential for some members to abuse the opportunity while others don’t get their say.