Evaluating Another Public Apology

Helping people make effective apologies is part of being a mediator and conflict coach, so it’s instructive to evaluate apologies. We had another public example this week from former CIA Director General David Petraeus, who began his speech to a group of veterans Tuesday with these prepared words:

“Needless to say, I join you keenly aware that I am regarded in a different light now than I was a year ago. I am also keenly aware that the reason for my recent journey is my own doing. Please allow me to begin my remarks this evening by reiterating how deeply I regret — and apologize for — the circumstances that led to my resignation from the CIA and caused such pain for my family, friends and supporters. I know that I can never fully assuage the pain that I inflicted on those closest to me, and on a number of others. I can, however, try to move forward in a manner that is consistent with the values to which I subscribed before slipping my moorings and, as best as possible, to make amends to those I have hurt and let down.”

A good apology has at least three essential elements: Responsibility, Regret, and Remedy. See, e.g., Beverly Engel, The Power of Apology. (John Wiley & Sons: 2001) pp. 66-68. This apology meets these, although it’s rather vague on the remedy. But somehow this apology leaves me empty: does he really get it?

A more detailed yardstick for measuring effective apologies is Peacemaker Ministries’ “7 A’s of Confession.” He “Addressed everyone involved,” and he “Avoided ‘if,’ ‘but,’ and ‘maybe.’” But he fell a little short on other criteria:
– “Admit specifically” – For what exactly is he apologizing? Does he know what he did wrong? “slipping my moorings” is a great metaphor, but how did that happen? Until he gets to the root of it, how can we be sure it won’t happen again?
– “Acknowledge the hurt” – Does he fully understand the impact of his transgression? Speaking to veterans, he might have acknowledged tarnishing the military’s reputation. One commentator, Robin Abcarian of the LA times, points out that another consequence is reinforcement of the perception that a man and woman cannot work together platonically.
– “Alter behavior” – What exactly is he going to do to make sure this doesn’t happen again? Obviously, “trying… to” behave “consistent with the values to which I subscribed before” wasn’t enough in the past, so what’s different now?

His is actually better than most public apologies, and he doesn’t owe the public the same level of detail that he owes his family. This is rather a lesson in how to construct an effective apology that truly will bring healing after offense.

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