The 2 Keys to Processing Feedback You Didn’t Ask For


Getting feedback that stings a little bit can be difficult, even in the best of circumstances when it comes from someone you know and respect. So what if it comes unsolicited from someone you don’t know or respect? Should you ignore it?


Accepting feedback strikes at the natural tension that exists between two human needs. On the one hand, the need to improve and develop ourselves; on the other, the need to feel accepted just the way we are (one of the points in the book Thanks for the Feedback, Stone and Heen). When we ask for feedback, we’re exposing ourselves intentionally to that tension, which is why when we get feedback we DIDN’T ask for from someone we don’t know or who doesn’t know us, it can be very natural to bristle at it and dismiss it. After all, Who the heck asked YOU, buddy!?


So what’s the key in processing feedback you don’t like hearing and didn’t ask for? I want to share two that I’ve found invaluable:

  1. Take the messenger out of the equation
  2. Assume the best possible intent on their part


You may not respect them, but they may still have a point


If we want to remain truly open to improving, we may want to focus on ignoring the source of unsolicited feedback and paying attention to the message. Many years ago, I was living in a condo building in Miami, and on this particular day, I was riding the elevator down to the lobby, dressed in a suit for some reason that I don’t remember. Another man entered the elevator, and after exchanging hellos, he said to me: “Nice suit, but it’s not your color.”


I remember dryly replying “Okay” to signal that I wasn’t too pleased to hear his unsolicited opinion about my choice of suit. He must’ve picked up on my displeasure, but instead of backing off or apologizing for weighing in on something that wasn’t his business, he continued: “No, really, I mean it. You could do so much better with a different color suit.” I said “Okay” again and, as I walked off the elevator, thought to myself: Who is this guy, and why would he think it’s okay to tell me that? Buddy, you don’t even know me!


Fast forward to several years later when I was shopping for a sweater at the mall and found myself looking at how the available colors contrast with my skin and hair color. I was actually thinking about whether the options would or wouldn’t fall into the bucket of “not my color” (as the man in the elevator so clumsily put it).


Somewhere along the way, I’d developed a habit of shopping for colors that make me look good and feel confident (a very good thing for me!) where, earlier in my life, I wouldn’t have even considered the subject. I traced back the beginning of my shift on clothing color choices to the unsolicited feedback I got in that elevator. Somewhere along the way, I had overcome my indignation with the messenger and embraced the message.


It helps to assume the most positive intent


If I analyze HOW I was able to eventually accept the feedback, I’d say that, although I hated receiving unsolicited criticism from this guy I’d never seen before (or saw again after that day), I must’ve picked up on some positive intent. However misguided his approach and his delivery, I must’ve understood that he did, on some level, want to help me. Even if subconsciously, my assumption that he meant to help me, allowed me to remain open to unsolicited, clumsily delivered feedback that eventually made a positive difference in my life.


As much as you may hate unsolicited advice at work, the next time you receive it from someone you don’t know or respect, try to separate the message from the messenger. You may not like what they have to say or even like them personally, but they may have a point that could be helpful to you. And if you’re having trouble remaining open to the feedback, ask yourself what’s the most positive intent you could assume they had when they gave you the feedback. They might actually—albeit in their awkward, misguided way—be trying to help.


Guillermo Villar is principal coach with Cambio Coaching. He helps high-achieving individuals and teams communicate with intention to get the business results they want. If you’re interested in working with Guillermo, sign up for a free meeting to explore how he can help.