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
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:
- A member stands up or raises their hand, is recognized, and
states their motion.
- Another member seconds it (OR, nobody seconds it and the
motion is automatically dropped).
- The "presiding officer" (whoever is running the meeting) restates
the motion without rewording it.
- The motion is thrown open for discussion;
- The presiding officer calls the vote with "All in favor say
aye," or "stand up," or "raise your hand," and then asks for all against
and all abstaining, counts the votes, and announces the result.
When the rules are not followed, motions and discussion tend to look like
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
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
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
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
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 member raises their hand, is recognized by the presiding officer,
and states their motion. (For example: "I'd like to move that we add
something to the meeting script reminding the secretary to read the
- Potentially, another member can offer a modification here --
as in, "Can I suggest that the motion specify what the wording will be?"
or "Can I respectfully modify your motion to add that we need to get a
copy of the cross-talk statement?" The original member can either accept
and restate their motion, or decline the changes.
- Another member seconds the motion.
- The presiding officer re-states the motion and throws it open for
- Alternately, suggestions and amendments can be offered after the
second, and still before it is re-stated and offered up for discussion.
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
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
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.
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
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
- Question of Privilege: "I'd like to raise a question of
privilege. I can't hear the speaker; can we turn the fan off?"
- Orders of the Day: "I'd like to call for the orders of the
day. The business meeting is only supposed to go till 9:30, and it's
- Point of Order: "Point of order -- we can't have the
conference on the 27th, because Narcotics Anonymous is having one that
day and our traditions say we have to cooperate with other 12 step
groups." The presiding officer is in charge of ruling on the point.
- Point of Information: (Also sometimes called parliamentary
inquiry.) The purpose of a point of information is to find out what
the consequences of a vote may be, or what the process involved is. For
example, "Point of information: if we make this change to the script, who
is in charge of typing it up? Do we have someone who does that?" Or,
"Point of information: What's the process after someone suggests an
amendment to my motion?"
- Division of Assembly: This is for meetings where votes are
counted by yelling, whether aye/nay, yes/no, or some other contest of the
vocal cords. If a member doubts their presiding officer's ability to count
the number of simultaneously shouted words, they can call for a division
of assembly and the vote must be retaken in another manner.
- Appeal: Does require someone to second the motion. In any case
where the presiding officer has made a decision, and the meeting has not
yet moved on to other business, a member may call for an appeal. For
example: "I'd like to appeal that decision: I don't think we actually need
a division of assembly, since nobody voted against the motion."
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:
- Recess: If a motion is on the table, Recess is a
privileged motion -- that is, a member can interrupt business and ask for
a break right then and there. If there is nothing else on the table, this
is proposed like any other motion. "I'd like to call for a twenty-minute
recess." All in favor?
- Orders of the Day: As above.
- Division of the Assembly: As above.
- Lay on the Table: "I'd like to table this motion until next
meeting so I can get more information about it." This can only be applied
to a motion that is currently being discussed, not (for example) to the
rest of the meeting, the treasurer's report, or the report of a committee.
The meeting then votes on whether to table it. A motion to table a given
item under discussion can only be made once in a meeting unless something
urgent comes up (such as the end of the meeting) or a lot of progress has
been made in the discussion since the first motion to table was made.
If a motion to table includes a time -- for example, "Let's table this
until 2:15," -- then it is a Motion to Postpone, which can
- Division of a Question: This can be made at any time after the
motion is first stated by a member. It means that the presiding officer
re-states the motion, divided into parts, and each part is voted on
separately. For example:
Member 4: I'd like to move that we create a new service position for
making flyers and that they should advertise all the meetings in the area
and our upcoming conference.
Member 2: I'd like to call for the division of the question.
Member 6, acting as the secretary and presiding officer that day: All
right. First we'll vote on a new service position for making flyers, and
then on whether they should advertise all the meetings in the area, and
then on whether they should advertise the upcoming conference. Are there
any seconds on the motion as a whole?
Member 7: Second.
(Member 6 then calls for a discussion and vote on each of the parts of
the motion separately. The general assembly votes against advertising the
conference, but for the creation of a new service position and for
advertising all local meetings on their flyers. The vote on the motion
itself is then called; it passes, and the approved parts of the motion are
put into place.)
- Suspend the Rules: This can apply to any rule, and requires a
two-thirds vote to pass. A member can, for example, say, "I move that we
suspend the rule about keeping the door closed, because it is very, very
hot." This motion is not debatable or amendable, and requires a second.
- Reconsider a Motion: If a motion is rejected by a close vote
-- for example, if it needed a 2/3 vote and only got 55% voting yes -- a
member can say, "I'd like to take a motion to reconsider this at the next
meeting." The presiding officer then calls for the vote; if it passes by a
simple majority, the motion can be put back on the table at the next
- Dispense with Reading of the Minutes: In a meeting that
regularly reads and votes to approve the previous meeting's minutes, a
member can "move to dispense with the reading of the minutes" in order to
save time. This requires a second and a majority vote.
- Adjourn: If there is a future meeting, this is a privileged
motion -- that is, it does not require debate. In a situation where there
are no future meetings and adjourning would end the discussion
permanently, a motion to adjourn can be debated or amended. A
member may say "I move that we adjourn," and the presiding officer must
then call for a vote.
- Objection to the Consideration of the Question: This must take
place before any debate begins. It does not need to be seconded, and has
to be voted upon. Like so:
Member 3: I'd like to move that we not allow anyone under 16 at this
Member 8: I object to the consideration of the question.
Member 6: The consideration of the question has been objected to.
Shall we consider it?
(Everyone votes; if 2/3 or more of the assembly votes no, the
"question" is not "considered" and the motion is dropped. Otherwise, the
process of considering the motion continues normally, in this case with a
call for a second.)
- Previous Question (Close Debate): This motion calls for an
immediate vote on whatever motion is on the table and has the effect that
the meeting is closed immediately afterward. A member may say, "I'd like
to call the previous question," and the presiding officer calls for a
vote; if the majority vote is in the negative, discussion on the current
matter continues normally.
- Limit or Extend Limits of Debate: A member can move to change
the time involved in a debate with a statement like, "I move to limit
debate to three speakers;" the motion is passed or defeated by a 2/3 vote.
- Recess: As above.
- Point of Information: As above.
- Point of Order: As above.
- Raise a Question of Privilege: As above.
- Appeal: As above.
The National Society of Black Engineers' explanation of the six steps
involved in making a main motion:
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:
A hyperlinked, online copy of the 1915 edition of Robert's Rules of
The official Robert's Rules of Order website, with books and history:
C.S.U. Ohio's Physics Club examines an abridged list of Robert's
Rules, with excellent explanations and examples:
Parliamentary Procedure online's list of Precedence of Motions:
copyright 2003 dani n.