Debate Decorum and Procedures

By Diana Bacon, MBA

Have you ever been in a debate? Most would answer “yes” as the verb debate is often used synonymously with the verb argue. In a board setting, however, if an argument becomes heated, feelings can be hurt, and members of the board may choose to leave. While some boards find it difficult to recruit new members, it can be very easy to lose members. That is one reason it is important to maintain decorum at board meetings.

A business meeting is intended to be a formal setting and a debate is a formal discussion of a motion. In a debate, opposing views on the merits of the motion may be heard, alternating between proponent and opponent views. To ensure decorum, a formal debate requires formal procedures and rules and Robert’s Rules of Order, Newly Revised (11th edition) provides the standard for business meetings.

It is important to learn the rules for debate decorum and debate procedures as part of the debate process. As I mentioned in the article, Handling Motions, members may begin to debate the motion after the motion is stated by the chair.

Debate Decorum

While some rules may seem to be common sense, some may not; however, each rule has its place to maintain decorum.

  • Address only the chair, or through the chair
  • Only one speaker at a time
  • Stand to speak, unless a small board or committee
  • Speak only after recognition by the chair
  • The chair refers to himself only in the third person (never “I)
  • Confine remarks to the merits of the pending question
  • Refrain from attacking another member’s motives
  • Refrain from speaking against one’s own motion
  • Member should be seated if the chair interrupts
  • Refrain from disturbing the assembly or getting in the way of business

Debate Procedures

The general procedures for debate relate to the length and the number of speeches on each debatable question.

  • Two speeches
  • Ten minutes

This rule may be changed by a two-thirds vote on the motion to Limit or Extend Debate. Members have options to limit or extend the number of speeches, and/or the length of the speech, and/or the maximum amount of time for the debate.

Just as there are rules for driving and rules for a board game, there are rules for a debate in meetings. When all members know the meeting rules, the chair can conduct a more effective and efficient meeting. Adhering to the rules for debate customarily results in more favorable meetings. Members will not only stay but will likely participate more fully in business meetings.