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Cognitive phase

Cognitive hhase

Every negotiation consists of certain phases. The cognitive phase is the actual negotiation phase. It follows specific rules and as always, it is important to keep an eye on your stress levels.

Every negotiation goes through different phases. Each phase is a challenge in itself and every step should be well planned. Stress is a factor that should not be underestimated and it is important to be prepared for it.

The cognitive phase

After the first few minutes are over, tension drops and we enter the cognitive phase. This phase allows a rational and reasonable approach in which the participants can identify the problem and seek a solution. The best way to start looking for a solution is to highlight commonalities such as common perspectives and common goals. The mere presentation of one's own goals and interests without highlighting commonalities is risky in this phase.

Don’t commit too early by
presenting your negotiation goal.

If you present your negotiating goal this early in the process, you risk revealing too much information, including your weak spots. The other party might find out what is really important to you, and what kind of outcome you want to avoid. The presentation of one's own goal also forces the other side to formulate their goal. This risks cementing two diametrically opposed positions right at the beginning of the negotiation. If you commit too early, the possibility of you losing face increases dramatically.

Common goals

Even in the most difficult negotiations, the opposing parties have some common interests, even if this is not obvious at first. If there are no commonalities, such as common problems or common goals, there is no need for negotiation. Emphasize that you have a common starting point, a common objective, and that you want to «define a common path to a common goal».

Central elements of the cognitive phase

1. Enjoyment

Your mindset should be to look forward to negotiating with the other side: firstly, because they are committed and communicate their demands openly, and secondly, because you are well prepared and have the opportunity to make an important contribution to the development of the company. You should express that excitement by emphasizing how much you enjoy sitting at the negotiating table. Although it may sound ironic to you, the expression of joy is an important element at the beginning of the cognitive phase. As a professional negotiator, you are expected to approach negotiations without prejudice against your negotiating partner.

2. Praise

Here, we can learn from other cultures, where negotiations usually begin with praising the opposite party. The negotiating partner is praised for their courage to tackle the issue, or for their readiness to think about a new way of doing things. Or for their preparation, punctuality, accuracy, reasoning etc. You will surely find something to praise. Authenticity is key, praise only works if you really mean it.

3. Positive reinforcement

Try to recognize the benefits of a potential agreement in the expressions your counterpart uses. Now is the right time to present these benefits. Those comments and expressions that support your argument should be noted down and built into your reasoning as a reinforcement.

The other side opens the negotiation as follows: "Ladies and gentlemen, we are pleased to start negotiations with you today. I would like to make clear at the beginning that a general strike is inevitable if we do not come to an agreement.” Note down these introductory words and divide them into positive and negative messages. It would be unwise to pick up on the negative messages, which is what usually happens (i.e. "So you do not want to negotiate, but make it clear right from the start that a strike is inevitable.”). Such a statement would mean cementing all the negative ideas, meaning you will not get rid of them throughout the negotiation. Please reinforce the positive words instead: “We are very confident that you are looking forward to coming to a solution with us. To negotiate means to contribute ideas, to weigh up options and to reach a common result. In this sense, we want to continue the negotiation with the clear goal of a joint agreement.”

4. Roller coaster ride

At the beginning and end of a negotiation, we expect increased stress levels and we are usually well prepared for it. During the cognitive phase however, we are often surprised by the constant ups and downs. As soon as we calm down, the opposing party comes up with more surprises. This roller coaster ride of emotions is a challenge that can be a lot of fun. It becomes difficult though if your stress level is exclusively controlled by the other party, i.e. you only react to external stimuli. 
If you want to display a more confident, relaxed reaction to these ups and downs, or if things become too heated and you need a break, here is a simple tip: break through the cycle of emotional reactions by asking a rational question. If your counterpart responds rationally, everything is fine. If you ask the next rational question and your counterpart gets emotional, it may be that this is only a show – so ask the next rational question. If the answer is still emotional and you are sure that it is not a show, ask the next rational question, but move to a different topic that does not incite your negotiating partner. In a nutshell: no matter what your partner’s reaction looks like in the cognitive phase, always ask the next rational question.