Lessons from a Shocking Apology
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At the tender age of 32, T.J. Ducklo had achieved a lot. He was appointed as special assistant and junior deputy press secretary for the Biden Administration, after an impressive career with various media organizations.
His accomplishments were even more admirable because he was also coping with a devastating diagnosis (in 2019) of metastatic lung cancer.
Then everything unraveled.
Ducklo was accused of threatening a female reporter after he learned she was planning to publish an article about his relationship with a reporter from Axios.
Initially, he was suspended for one week without pay. After an ensuing backlash, he resigned.
We can learn valuable lessons from his written apology.
A perfect apology
Ducklo’s apology was perfect. He stated:
No words can express my regret, my embarrassment, and my disgust for my behavior. I used language that no woman should ever have to hear from anyone, especially in a situation where she was just trying to do her job.
He described his language as: abhorrent, disrespectful, and unacceptable.
He concluded with these words:
I know this was terrible. I know I can’t take it back. But I also know I can learn from it and do better. This incident is not representative of who I am as a person, and I will be determined to earn back the trust of everyone I have let down because of my intolerable actions.
Here are the lessons we can learn from his mea culpa.
The lesson of empathy
As Ducklo accurately noted, his conduct was indefensible. That doesn’t mean it’s not possible to feel empathy for his plight.
A young person in a highly stressful job is confronted with the revelation of a personal story that could be devastating to his career. He chose a terrible way to deal with it.
When you add the fact that he is confronting his own mortality with a very serious cancer diagnosis, his conduct is no less defensible, but it’s easier to understand. I don’t know his medication regimen, but’s it’s possible he was taking powerful drugs that altered his mood and affected his judgment.
We often make the mistake of evaluating offensive conduct at face value, without considering other factors. If a client seems brusque, maybe it’s because they are in the middle of a difficult divorce, a health crisis, or are experiencing some other adverse life event. It’s not always obvious.
The “empathy lesson” in the Ducklo case is to resist the temptation to form a judgment before tempering that judgment through an empathetic lens.
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The apology lesson
We’re not perfect. We say and do things we wish we could retract.
An apology does wonders for forging a deeper, more honest, and ultimately more positive relationship.
Ducklo avoided the trap of the conditional apology (If my conduct offended anyone, I’m sorry).
He apologized sincerely. He expressed empathy for the victim of his conduct. He demonstrated an understanding of the pain he caused. He offered a humble mea culpa and vowed to do better.
His apology demonstrated self-awareness, contrition and thoughtfulness.
I wish him well, both personally and professionally.