How To Make Discussion More Efficient

Here’s your parliamentary procedure principle of the day: The amount of time a group spends discussing each item of business at a meeting is often the determining factor for how long the meeting lasts. So, if you’re looking to minimize time spent in meetings, you should look first at ways to streamline discussion. Today’s post gives you a few easy steps to help make that happen.

Step 1: Decide on a way to limit the amount of discussion based on your goals for the group, for a specific meeting, or for a certain topic.

Establishing discussion time limits is the best way to streamline that portion of your meetings. I’m not saying that there shouldn’t be discussion or that it’s unimportant. The opposite is true in fact.  Discussion is the process by which a group makes better decisions than each person could make on his own. Ideas are teased out, different perspectives are offered and heard, and each person has an opportunity to share her unique experiences and skills for the benefit of the group.

But none of those benefits means that discussion has to be open-ended and limitless. Placing some limits on discussion can help keep members focused and avoid needless repetition and rabbit trails.

Here are several different ways to limit the amount of discussion time. (And I’ll add an extra piece of advice: you should think about the culture of your group and the goals of your group before picking one of the methods below.)

1. Limit the amount of time each person can speak on a topic.

This is simply a limit on the number of minutes each person can speak on a specific topic or motion. Two to three minutes tends to be a good starting point here. In most circumstances, that is a sufficient amount of time for a prepared person to make the points she needs to make on a topic. This limit ensures that everyone has opportunity to speak, just not for an endless amount of time.

2. Limit the total number of individuals who can speak on a topic, or on each side of a topic.

This is a limit on the total number of individuals that can speak on a topic, or it could be a set of two limits—a limit on the total number of individuals that can speak in favor and a second limit on the total number that can speak in opposition. Depending on whether a topic is controversial, three to five individuals per side is typically a good number. This limit ensures that each side of an issue receives relatively equal attention and voice.

3. Limit the total time spent on a topic.

This method allots an amount of time for each topic and can be useful for ensuring that a group gives sufficient weight to an idea, without attempting to govern the time that each member or side of an issue receives.

4. Take a vote when there is no one who wants to speak on a certain side of a topic.

This method says that when there are individuals who only want to speak in favor or only want to speak in opposition, debate should be closed. This is a good method to use to ensure that each side has sufficient time to voice its views, and that as soon as discussion becomes one-sided, the group will move on.

Step 2: Ask the group’s permission to impose the discussion limit.

Because discussion is a basic right of each member of a deliberative body, a limit can’t be unilaterally imposed by the leadership or the person chairing the meeting. A group has to collectively decide to impose a limit on itself. Here’s how that decision can be made….

  • Adopt special rules that include a blanket limit or set of limits applicable to all meetings—requires either at least two‑thirds of votes cast if advance notice has been given of the rules and the vote that will be taken on them, or requires a majority of the entire membership
  • Adopt a motion at the beginning of a meeting that establishes certain limits specific to that meeting—requires two-thirds of the votes cast
  • Adopt a motion prior to or during consideration of a specific topic that applies the limit to that topic only—requires two-thirds of the votes cast

Two Final Details

The limits described above aren’t mutually exclusive. You can adopt and apply one or all of them to any topic or meeting.

And adopting limits isn’t an irreversible action. If your group has decided to limit discussion and then finds itself in the middle of a topic that needs more time than the limit allows, the group can simply vote to extend the time. This adjustment would require two-thirds of the votes cast.