Getting your board to buy in to Robert’s Rules

A reader writes, “The city council has never used much parliamentary procedure in our meetings. People speak when they want and sidebar discussions are common. How to ease the council into more parliamentary procedure without confusing them?”

It’s a great question. Here are three steps you can take to get your council or board to buy in to Robert’s Rules.

1. Educate the council about why this is important. In some states, parliamentary procedure and Robert’s Rules of Order are required by state law. Even if your state does not specify correct procedure, the courts have found that public bodies and nonprofit boards must follow certain key principles. In other words, you’re not free to do whatever you like in your meetings. It’s essential for you, as an official elected to serve the public rather than yourself, or a board member who is responsible to the public (and the IRS!) for a nonprofit organization, to carry out your duties in a way that is beyond reproach.

2. Adopt four key guidelines for effective meetings. Invite your board to adopt four operating guidelines that are critical for your meetings. In brief, they are:

  •  The chair is the servant of the group and the group is the final authority.
  • All members have equal rights, privileges and obligations. To ensure this, no one may speak a second time until everyone who wishes to do so has spoken once.
  • Courtesy and respect are required at all times.
  • The group will process one thing at a time.

These guidelines are described in more detail on this page of our website, including a free downloadable PDF. Share them with your group. (If your group has adopted Robert’s Rules, these guidelines already apply.) Most everyone sees the benefit of following these guidelines, which are both fair and efficient. It can be hard, however, to break out of the “conversational style” of discussion, which leads to our next point.

3. Enforce the four guidelines. You as the leader of the group have to be ready, once everyone understands the rules and the group has adopted them, to put them into play. Your tone of voice is critical here. Speaking in a firm and positive manner, you must be prepared to:

  • Require everyone who wishes to speak to be recognized (raise their hand and get the nod) before speaking.
  • Ensure that no one speaks a second time until everyone who wishes to speak has done so.
  • Cut off anyone who speaks out of turn.
  • Stop anyone who interrupts another person.
  • Call out and stop rude, discourteous or personal remarks.
  • Follow the agenda and keep discussion on topic.

Once the council or board is used to this approach, you can introduce the motions Point of Order and Appeal (read about them here) and the other, more technical points of Robert’s Rules of Order and parliamentary procedure. In our view, however, the content outlined here is far more important than these technical aspects.

The chair has a responsibility, as the leader and servant of the group, to exercise a “generous authority”* that will help everyone work together collaboratively and cooperatively to carry out their duties and serve their community. Once you are clear on your approach, you can encourage your group to buy in to Robert’s Rules, and make the difference to your council or board.

Download PDF


*For more on “generous authority,” see Priya Parker’s book, The Art of Gathering: How we meet and why it matters.

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Ann Macfarlane

Ann G. Macfarlane is a Professional Registered Parliamentarian. She offers an interactive and user-friendly way to master the key points for effective, efficient and fair meetings. Her background as a diplomat and Russian translator enables her to connect with elected officials and nonprofit board directors and give them the tools they need for success. She is the author of Mastering Council Meetings: A guidebook for elected officials and local governments.


  1. Katalin Pearman on February 7, 2019 at 10:55 am

    Thank you for these reminders, Ann! We always learn so much from you. Even though we technically know the rules and these things should be obvious, we often sidestep them by being too informal, speaking out of turn, not waiting to be recognized, not staying on topic, and my personal favorite: sidebar discussions! I wish you could personally be at every meeting to keep people on track!

    • Ann Macfarlane on February 7, 2019 at 11:22 am

      Thanks so much Katalin! I appreciate your kind words. Take care –

  2. Gretchen Denton on February 7, 2019 at 11:44 am

    While it sounds so basic, you make it new every time you write a fresh blog. Thank you!

    • Ann Macfarlane on February 7, 2019 at 12:02 pm

      You are so kind Gretchen! Thank you!

  3. Kevin Cunningham on February 22, 2019 at 8:06 am


    What happens when the chair ignores a point of Order and fails to recognize the appeal process.
    We also have a chair who screams at our meetings as well iabasting other members of the council
    Very Frustrating.

    Does the chair have the last word in our meeting?

    • Ann Macfarlane on February 22, 2019 at 9:06 am

      Kevin, this kind of behavior is completely contrary to Robert’s Rules. I suggest educating the council about the fact that the group itself is the final authority. Here is our post on “the chair is not in charge of your meeting.”

      Robert’s Rules says that if the chair refuses to recognize a proper appeal, the member can stand in place and put it to the group himself. But that will work only if the group understands the principles and is willing to take action against the chair.

      Good luck!


  4. Kevin Cunningham on February 22, 2019 at 12:08 pm

    Thank you Ann’

    What actions can be taken against the chair if the chair refuses to recognize a proper appeal,

    Thank You

    • Ann Macfarlane on February 22, 2019 at 12:27 pm

      Kevin, I suggest that you talk to your attorney about this. Someone needs to educate the chair about their duties when an appeal is made. It is difficult to take effective action in a meeting itself.

      However, as mentioned above, if a member makes an appeal that is seconded, and the chair refuses to recognize it, the member can repeat the appeal twice and then, if the chair doesn’t recognize it, the member can stand in his place and put the appeal to a vote without debate. The member says, “Shall the decision of the chair be sustained?” Note that the voting is a little tricky. If the members agree with the CHAIR, they vote YES. If they agree with you, they vote NO. This is kind of the opposite of how it feels. Read about this on p. 651 of Robert’s Rules of Order Newly Revised, 11th edition.

      We have a description of the appeal process in this blog entry: Keep the chair in line using Appeal.

      This is only going to work if the members understand their rights, so again, education is necessary, while of course observing the open meeting requirements of your jurisdiction.

      Does this help?