Board meetings can become contentious and emotional. Participants can become emotional when there is an item on the agenda which attracts opposing views and the debate is polarized. The Parliamentary process is intended to allow these situations to be managed in an effective way.
This is a topic which I have been asked to address at every governance session I have spoken at. How do you deal with debate when it becomes contentious?
Effective governance begins with the premise that boards speak through motions. For something to be debated there must be a motion on the floor. In order for that to happen someone must move the motion and someone else must second it, following which the Chair states the question and opens debate. From there motions can be amended, carried or defeated, but debate without a motion or debate which is not germane to the topic should not take place.
Here is an example:
You are at a meeting of a society for a sports club, for example a softball club. The topic for discussion on the agenda is about a fundraising plan for the year. The idea of hosting movie nights comes up. Someone on the board suggests that the club should purchase a popcorn machine; several board members like that and a few do not. An argument breaks out. The non-supporters are saying that popcorn machines are too expensive, and there would be no return on investment; and really chocolate bar sales will generate more funds than popcorn sales, with less work!
This is where the Chair needed to step in to head off the inevitable argument. Once a list of fundraising ideas began to emerge, the Chair should have, at that point, turned to the person who suggested a popcorn machine and said, “Would you like to move a motion to this effect? If it is seconded, then we can open debate." The debate could start then and if someone was opposed, they could either debate the popcorn machine motion, vote against it or move an amendment to replace the popcorn machine with something else. Boards can only make decisions via a motion, without a motion, debate is simply an argument.
A few important points to keep in mind! Debate the issues, not the people or personalities. Name calling, or personal attacks should not be allowed, Instead of comments like "cheat!", "ridiculous!" or "liar!", speakers should always show decorum, more appropriate comments would be phrased, "I disagree with the statement made by the previous speaker, as..." Comments should always be depersonalized.
Speakers may only speak through the Chair, not at the board member, i.e.: "Mr./Madame President, Chair ____, or, Through the Chair, I disagree with the last idea as I do not see how it could be feasible.", Not: "Tom, your comment is insane!" Once again, comments should always be depersonalized. You may attack the issue, not the person.
Once a motion is on the floor the Chair of the meeting is then able to use a structured approach to facilitate the debate. Great board members can be lost, or never apply when meetings are needlessly too contentious, and this can also damage otherwise great relationships and fracture a board.
For more tips and tricks related to good governance practices and running effective meetings, subscribe to our newsletter, at the bottom of our page here.
Don’t forget to follow our blog to receive updates!