Over almost a year of attendance at many twelve-step meetings in several twelve-step fellowships, I have noticed that many don't have a formal procedure for passing motions, or follow a modified version of Robert's Rules of Order which forces the secretary to know and enforce all the rules single-handedly. Accordingly, I have tried here to research and explain the different motions and procedures involved in Robert's Rules; I have twelve-step meetings in mind, but these rules can be applied anywhere that the members agree to embrace them.

The great, difficult crux of business meetings is the process of changing things. All too often, change is effected by the "grunt method." One member wishes to skip some tedious part of the meeting, and suggests it informally; three or four others agree with vague grunts; and the dizzied secretary or chairperson, unsure what the rules are around this, goes ahead with what seems to be group consensus. Meanwhile, the majority of the members did not get a chance to voice their opinion and are silently seething with rage, but don't know how to raise their issue and stay silent instead.

In twelve-step groups, at least the ones I've attended, this happens most often outside of business meetings. During the regular meeting time, people sometimes seem to be less sure of how to propose a change in the schedule or whether to ask about closing the window, possibly because there seems to be less structure. In fact, the same rules hold for either situation. Let's look at them now.

The Decision-Making Process

In order to propose a change in the current meeting or introduce a new idea to a group, someone must make a motion. Basically, that process is as follows:

When the rules are not followed, motions and discussion tend to look like this:

Member 1: Um, I noticed that we don't have a basket for collecting donations and there are all these baskets downstairs and we can use them, so maybe we should?
Secretary: Oh, uh, that's okay with me. Any discussion?
Member 2: (raises hand) I think we're okay the way we are, just borrowing another meeting's basket each time.
Member 3: But the traditions say we're supposed to be self-supporting. Isn't that not being self-supporting?
Member 4: (saucily) I think it's pretty self-supporting of us.
Member 1: Well, I was just wondering.
Secretary: Okay.... (looks around for another motion)

How many violations of the rules of order can you find in that exchange? There are at least six. Million.

Here's how it should go:

Member 1: (raises hand)
Secretary: Yes, Member 1?
Member 1: Um, I noticed that we don't have a basket for collecting donations and there are all these baskets downstairs and we can use them, so I'd like to make a motion that we get a volunteer to go downstairs and get a basket.
Member 9: I'll second the motion.
Secretary: Okay, the motion is that we ask for a volunteer to go downstairs and get a basket for collecting the meeting's dues. Any discussion?
Member 2: I think we're okay the way we are, just borrowing another meeting's basket each time.
Member 3: But the traditions say we're supposed to be self-supporting. Isn't that not being self-supporting?
Member 1: Yeah, and I don't feel comfortable moving their baskets around without asking. They don't always get put back in the same place, and we don't know if they might have a problem with it for some reason.
Secretary: Any more discussion? Okay, all in favor? (counts hands) All opposed? (counts hands) Abstaining? (counts hands) Motion passed. Do we have any volunteers to go get a basket?

Modifying a Motion

The beauty of making a motion is that it doesn't have to be perfect: anyone can suggest any change, secure in the knowledge that if it's stepping on someone's toes or stirring up trouble, another member will bring that up during discussion. The trick, often, is to learn to let go of the motion and not take modifications or votes against it personally. This is outside of our scope here: instead, we'll discuss how a motion can be modified.

The correct time to suggest a modification to a motion is before the floor is thrown open to discussion. That is:

Once the motion is up for discussion, it belongs to the meeting at large -- which means, essentially, that if the person who originally made the motion wants to change it, they now also have to ask for unanimous consent from everyone there.

A third way that modifications can take place also comes up during the discussion phase: any member can propose an amendment to the motion. These act as a sort of mini-motion: they have to be seconded, and they can be amended and/or debated themselves.

If discussion has snowballed or devolved into chaos, anyone may move to refer the main motion to a committee. If that motion to refer is seconded and passed, the presiding officer then asks for volunteers to form a committee to look into the matter and the motion is tabled until the committee returns the motion to the assembly, usually with proposed amendments.

There is one last way to change a motion: the third kind of change that may take place during discussion. If a motion is, or has become, too complicated for the meeting to process, (for example, if it has grown to encompass several people's suggestions, seemingly unrelated ideas, or if debate around it has become impaled on the many prongs of the matter at hand), a member can urge its rejection (NOT move to reject it) and offer to propose a simpler substitute motion upon this motion's defeat.

That is, a member can say, "Oh my god, this is too much. I think the only way to do justice to Member 4's suggestion is to scrap this and have someone just propose one sentence to add to the script, and we can vote on all the rest of this stuff we've been discussing later." Whereupon the presiding officer might call for the vote, the members might oblige by voting the current motion down, and Member 4 (or anyone else) can propose a substitute motion.

Everyday Matters

That's the bulk of what happens at a business meeting. But what about all the everyday moments when the fan is too cold, or the meeting across the hall is too loud, or the speaker has gone too long and a member wants to skip part of the usual schedule to save time?

Basically, it's the same process. Except that here we have the chance to look at some of the motions we can make that don't require the help of the presiding officer.

These are the motions that don't require recognition by the chair, all but one of which don't require a second by another member:

The first two are called "privileged motions;" the latter five are called "informational motions;" both of these are forms of incidental motions." All they require is one of the statements above: there is no vote, they are automatically passed. If another member finds that she is too hot with the fan off, she may make a motion for an alternative compromise; if a meeting has gone over and no one has called the orders of the day, someone may make a motion to extend the meeting for a set number of minutes. But any of these incidental motions is automatically respected.

Appeal is the only incidental motion that requires someone to second it; it can also be debated. The motions that can't be debated are:


  • The National Society of Black Engineers' explanation of the six steps involved in making a main motion: www.nsbe.org/region2/communications/downloads/rlc/SixSteps.doc
  • The Parliamentary Rules of Order, with great color-coding and tables to indicate what each kind of motion requires - from the Student Academy of the Academic Academy of Physician Assistants: http://saaapa.aapa.org/hottopics/Sturgis/parliamentary_inq.htm
  • A hyperlinked, online copy of the 1915 edition of Robert's Rules of Order: http://www.constitution.org/rror/rror--00.htm
  • The official Robert's Rules of Order website, with books and history: http://www.robertsrules.com
  • C.S.U. Ohio's Physics Club examines an abridged list of Robert's Rules, with excellent explanations and examples: http://www.csuohio.edu/physics/SPS/robsrluz.html
  • Parliamentary Procedure online's list of Precedence of Motions: http://www.parlipro.org/precedencelist.htm:

    copyright 2003 dani n.