One of the most challenging situations that may confront the presiding officer of a large meeting is handling very disruptive audience members. For example, what if Mrs. Smith, an owner with strong opinions who’s known for being very outspoken, starts yelling during the meeting? Fortunately, this kind of disruption is very rare during a well-planned, well-organized and well-run meeting. Even so, presiding officers often feel more comfortable if they are prepared to handle the worst situation that may arise.
Parliamentary Tip. The key tools the presiding officer has to handle disruptive members are a carefully prepared agenda, a “sergeant at arms” appointed in advance, and a recess. It is true that Robert’s Rules of Order Section 61 provides detailed disciplinary procedures available to a presiding officer. These procedures range from calling a member to order, reprimand, suspension, through expulsion. But, as that same section explains, “It is usually in the best interest of the organization first to make every effort to obtain a satisfactory solution of the matter quietly and informally.” (RONR Sec. 61, page 624 lines 16 – 18).
Agenda. The agenda should provide an opportunity for all members, including potentially disruptive Mrs. Smith, to speak and ask questions. At the very beginning of the meeting, or the beginning of the comment period if that occurs first, explain the rules by which you will moderate both the meeting and comment period – they should be in your Conduct of Meetings Policy. Then stick to it: moderate the meeting and member comment period neutrally and evenhandedly, strictly according to the rules. That way everyone is treated equally and fairly.
Explanation. Then, when Mrs. Smith attempts to speak at a time when she is out of order, gently and non-defensively explain when she had, or will have, her opportunity to speak. Next explain why, in the best interest of the organization, the meeting should proceed, because the right of the majority to have the meeting proceed as planned in the agenda is more important than the right of Mrs. Smith to speak out of turn. Clearly explaining why you are moving the meeting along helps reassure other members that you are not taking away Mrs. Smith’s rights to be heard, but are instead protecting everyone’s rights.
Recess. If Mrs. Smith persists in being disruptive, call a brief recess to discuss with her how best to handle the matter. Speak with her quietly, seeking a way to give her a future, meaningful opportunity to be heard and a way to seek to get her problem resolved or concern addressed. Include the sergeant at arms in this discussion, and explain that the sergeant at arms will, unfortunately, have to ask her to leave the meeting if she continues to disrupt the meeting for everyone else. It is rarely necessary to take this step if you’ve laid the groundwork properly with the techniques discussed above.
The most important way to handle a disruptive member is to treat that member just as respectfully, fairly but firmly, as every other member.