Being the president of the National Association of Parliamentarians was a very special and unique responsibility. It was also one that opened the door to many questions and comments from the public concerning misconceptions about parliamentary procedure and parliamentarians. During my term, I had an interesting conversation while traveling on an airplane that made me stop and think about the way we represent ourselves as parliamentary professionals.
I was looking forward to the usual uneventful trip. I boarded the plane, sat down, buckled my seat belt, and settled in. Just then a harried looking man in a business suit came up the aisle and asked me to let him into the row. I got up and when we both got settled, we began to talk. He said he was the executive director of a nation-wide non-profit association. He asked what I did and I told him that I was on my way to a state parliamentary convention. He asked why and I told him, “I am the president of the National Association of Parliamentarians.” Boy. . . was I unprepared for what he was about to tell me!!
He said, “Oh yes, I know about your association. But I hate to tell you this. I usually refer to your organization as ‘The National Association of Knit-Pickers.” He went on to say, “We have used professional registered parliamentarians at our conventions for years and generally they have been very helpful to our association.” But then he hesitated, and almost apologetically he said, “I think it is only fair to tell you that we are thinking about discontinuing the use of a professional parliamentarian.” When I asked him why, he explained that although they have been technically helpful, often his experience has been that most parliamentarians are too tightly wedded to “the letter of the law.”
I asked him to explain what he meant and he said, “Parliamentarians just don’t know when to quit. They give us the technical advice that we need, but too often they want to push us into unfamiliar language that doesn’t really help our members and more often than not is simply confusing.” I asked for an example and he said, “Our last parliamentarian told us that when someone wants to propose that debate be ended, they should ‘move the previous question.’ Then the parliamentarian told us that the chair should say: ‘The previous question has been moved and seconded. All those in favor of the previous question, say aye ...” “The problem is,” he said, “that with that wording our members are left wondering if they are voting on whether they are ready to close debate or whether they are, in fact, voting on the previously pending question.” I hastened to explain to him the meaning of these words and he acknowledged that he understood. What he didn’t understand was why the parliamentarian insisted on the use of these special “terms of art” and wouldn’t help the presiding officer figure out a simple, plain English, phrase to use as an alternative that would assist the members to understand what was going on. He concluded our chat by saying, “You know, Robert’s Rules is very helpful in business meetings, but remember Robert’s is NOT a grammar book.”
I came away from that conversation with a renewed sense that we, as parliamentarians, are required not only to give the right information, but to give the information the right way. As professionals we cannot settle for just giving people the rules. We have the obligation, and the opportunity, to help them really understand what is taking place in any business meeting and then assist them to find ways to communicate to all of the members what is actually happening. Sometimes we have to face the fact that the “words of art” we love in parliamentary law really do not communicate very clearly to the average person. I believe this realization calls us to be careful, thorough communicators who help others learn the meaning behind the meaning of the words.
Let’s remember that the letter of the law is not often as important as the spirit of the law that underlies it. As we look with anticipation toward the upcoming release of the new 12th edition of Robert’s Rules of Order Newly Revised, let’s remember that parliamentary professionals not only have a responsibility to learn the rules and teach them correctly, but we also have a responsibility to communicate their meaning IN PLAIN ENGLISH in a way that will allow members to fully understand and participate in deliberations. Remember, as that association executive said, “Robert’s is NOT a grammar book.”
Copyright © 2020 Dr. Leonard M. Young, PRP - All Rights Reserved.