Mr. Robert’s Rules Can Make or Break Your Meeting

Christine Riddiough talks with Maxine Phillips ahead of DSA’s 2019 Convention

For years, NPC member Christine Riddiough has been one of the parliamentarians at DSA conventions, joined by other DSAers who have had such experience in their unions or other organizations. This year, the DSA convention will have a professional parliamentarian. Many DSA chapters use Robert’s Rules of Order or a modified version for their own regular meetings or conventions. These rules were adapted from procedures in the U.S. Congress and published in 1876 by U.S. Army Major Henry Robert. Robert found in civilian life that there were many differing opinions on how to run meetings, and the resulting discussions kept the meetings from accomplishing much. The book, now in its eleventh edition, is the most widely used reference on parliamentary procedure in the United States. You can find answers to many of your questions at the official website. The average person doesn’t run into Robert’s Rules (RR) until they go to their first convention or union, political, or faith-community meeting. The language and procedures can be bewildering. We asked Riddiough about her interest in the Rules and how they can improve your meetings or send them down the tubes. -Eds.

Illustration by John Leavitt.

Why did you decide to learn more about Robert’s Rules? 

I started college in 1964 (Carleton College in Northfield, MN) and quickly got involved in politics, specifically the young Democrats (or YDFL—Democratic-Farmer-Labor—as they are called in Minnesota). Early in my first year, I went to a statewide meeting of the YDFL and attended a workshop led by Vance Opperman. I was impressed by his skill with RR and thought it would be useful to learn. I was also attracted to the basic logic of RR,  something that appealed to the scientist in me.

So, I got a copy of Robert’s Rules of Order Newly Revised and started going through it. Eventually I tried my hand at chairing meetings—I became president of the Carleton YDFL and later state chairwoman of the MN YDFL. Over my college years my politics took a left turn, but I found I was able to use those same skills in a different setting, for example, NAM (New American Movement, a predecessor organization of DSA) conventions.

I was a member of the American Institute of Parliamentarians for a time.


Can you give an example, without naming names, of a time when you saw the use of RR really help an organization through a crisis? 

Well, I’m not sure what would constitute a crisis, but I have seen RR be really helpful in focusing debate, particularly on contentious issues like changes to the bylaws. By guiding debate, a skilled chair can help give everyone a voice in the matter even if there are deep divisions. I think that’s an important role for a chair. 


When do you think it’s not appropriate to use RR? 

RR is very effective in situations where you need to accomplish some task, such as modifying the bylaws or passing a resolution. It’s not very good in situations where you want to have debate, discussion, brainstorming. In those situations, there may not be a particular goal or resolution or project that needs to be approved. Rather, the focus is to get ideas out on the floor. For example, at past DSA National Political Committee meetings there was often time put aside for a general political discussion. Typically, there’d be a lead off speaker followed by comments from other NPC members. In that kind of discussion, we’re not looking to solve all the problems of the world, but to try to exchange ideas about where we’re at politically.

Another example would be where a group wants to do a brainstorming session to get ideas about what classes might be useful in a socialist school or what articles would be helpful in a chapter newsletter. In this case, you’d want to get the ideas out there with relatively few limitations on debate.

In any case, you want some rules about discussion: time limits on speakers, ways to encourage members to participate, particularly women, who often are less likely to jump into a sort of “free-for-all” type of discussion. 

In a “big tent”organization like DSA there are going to be differences on almost every issue. For example, the debate around whether to work inside the Democratic Party or outside it, or both, has been a bone of contention ever since I’ve been part of the Left (which is at about 50 years), so we can’t expect that to be resolved simply by having a resolution that’s debated using RR. But a discussion about electoral strategy that brings in many points of view could be very helpful in guiding our future work.

I’d encourage people to see RR not as a bludgeon, but rather as a map helping to move things forward. I also suggest that simply knowing RR is not the same as being a good chair. To be a good chair you need to know RR, but you also have to have some equanimity, logic, and patience.