Empathy and authenticity key to outstanding communications

Laurie Dawkins, ABC, MC
Vice President (interim), Communications, Public Affairs & Community Engagement
Vancouver Coastal Health

Would you put empathy in communication in your top sought-after skills for Communications/PR folks? Most people would place strategy management, leadership, and team building ahead of this.

But for Laurie Dawkins empathy in communication, alone with authenticity, are vital strengths for a communications professional.

Laurie Dawkins received the Master Communicator (MC) designation from the International Association of Business Communicator Canada (IABC) Canada West in 2017.

It is IABC’s highest honor, recognizing  outstanding Canadian communication professionals whose achievements have raised the standards of organizational communication in Canada. Linda Andross was Canada East’s recipient.

Based in Vancouver, Laurie Dawkins is an empathetic communications executive with more than 24 years experience in leading engaged teams. She has worked to break down barriers and inspire success in corporate communication by using empathy communications.

She is an influential advocate in the business communications profession, recognized for speaking, teaching, and volunteerism.

How did you feel when you heard you were a recipient?

Proud, because I knew that pretty much all of the people I respect most professionally had contributed to my nomination. I was also humbled for the very same reason. I spent the rest of the day smiling and resisting the urge to skip in the office!

IABC – a world of possibilities

What is it about IABC that drives this passion and your belief in the organization and your local chapter?

For the first six years of my career, I worked in places where I was the only communicator. I had a degree and a bit of work experience, but I “didn’t know what I didn’t know”. I was a member of IABC but not making use of my membership, so I started volunteering.

My eyes were opened to whole new world of specialties within the profession and to the amazingly generous members of the IABC/BC chapter. They were willing to take me under their wings and share communication plans and advice whenever I tried something new.

I loved the feeling of community and of belonging to something bigger than myself. It wasn’t long before I was mentoring others. It’s such a rush to truly help others be successful – by mentoring, teaching, helping them advance their own careers, and see them pay it forward.

I don’t think I could ever stop being involved. Being a member and volunteer with IABC is good for your soul!

You’re dedicated to communications as a profession,  and helping young professionals and those new to Vancouver. It’s both generous and altruistic of you. What’s the inspiration behind it? 

IABC members were generous with me when I was starting out and I see it as my responsibility to pay it forward. Plus, it’s good karma!

Yes, I’m in a great role right now, but you never know where your next gig is coming from. The person I help today could be my boss tomorrow. And I like having a reputation as someone who is approachable and kind. It makes me feel good!

From a shy child to a Master Communicator

Did empathy in communication come naturally to you, or is it something that you have had to work at over the years? If it’s the latter, have you employed tools or techniques to help hone your talents?

I was always expressive, but not necessarily a natural communicator. Growing up, I was incredibly shy. It was so hard for me to deliver a book report without sweating and shaking.

Knowing I couldn’t go through life like that, in grade 11 and 12, I ran for student council because it forced me to give speeches to the entire student body. I also competed in the Miss Penticton Peach Queen pageant because they offered Toastmaster training. After that, pretty much any form of fully-clothed communication is a cake walk!

I have learned to be a better communicator by repeatedly taking chances, taking on roles or volunteer assignments that felt beyond my current comfort zone on the belief that with support, I could rise to the challenge. IABC has never let me down in that respect!

Empathy in communication

We all communicate all the time and, chances are, a lot of us think we’re better at it than we really are. As a Master Communicator, can you share with us some of the secrets about empathy in communication? How do you talk authentically, motivate people, and listen so people will open up?

Even with the Master Communicator designation, I don’t have a lock on impactful or effective communication. I do pride myself on being an empathetic communicator. Empathy in communications is so important.

As a leader, I work hard to share what I know, meaning I try to be generous with information.

I am transparent about my own state of mind. If I had a rough morning and my head’s not in the game, I share that so people know where I’m coming from. Someone else can potentially take the lead.

We should bring our “whole selves” to work because every aspect of who we are impacts our communication. The more of that we can share, the easier it is to create impactful and effective communication campaigns and strategies.

Want to build trust? Be an empathetic communicator and authentic in all aspects of your life

What are some of the biggest challenges individuals within organizations face with communications? Are there similar issues you see over and over, and what are the solutions?

The issue I see over and over again is senior leaders or executives, chasing “shiny things,” looking for the quick fix or the new best practice. They want this from another high profile company to emulate and magically increase employee engagement.

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with seeking inspiration – that’s a good thing! But there needs to be an understanding that to advance engagement, it takes sustained effort by all leaders – not just those with “Communications” in their title.

One of the things I do is help executives find their voice, allowing them to show up authentically and be part of that effort. To do that, I get to know them and appreciate what they enjoy doing and what scares them. Then I work with them on both the messages and the stories that will help them connect with employees and partners.

Leadership communications

And when it comes to leadership, is there is one piece of advice on communicating that you’d impart?

Be generous – with your time, your attention, your praise, your consideration of others’ feelings.

I know I haven’t been showing up as the leader I aspire to be if people start their conversations with me with, “I know you’re really busy, but . . .”.  That’s a red flag to me that I’ve been too focused on myself and my own “to-do” list. Then, I need to  focus on the people in front of me. and be empathetic in my communication. They either need me or I need to learn something from them.

Empathy in the moment

In this new age of social media and data, what kinds of communications practitioners do you seek out? Apart from being great communicators, what skills should they possess?

I look for people who are curious and creative so they are always on the lookout for new ways to engage audiences.

I want people who are strategic in their ability to look across all of the many different ways to get messages out; and also people who are resilient.

I find that communicators tend to do double-duty as guidance counsellors and the moral compass of the organizations. If you want to be successful, you need to be empathetic in the moment, but also let things go so you are ready for tomorrow.

Change is constant – and so a combined skill set of communications and change management is highly valued

Looking to the future, what do you foresee as some of the biggest opportunities and challenges facing PR practitioners? Any thoughts on taking advantage of what lies ahead or how to prepare for challenges?

I think we have all come to accept that change is constant – it happens now at a truly breathtaking rate. I see a growing convergence of what used to be two different skill sets in communication and change management. It’s an asset to find people trained in both areas, with either direct experience in both, or at least the ability to speak/appreciate the language of both disciplines.

Individuals with this background bring a lot of thoughtfulness and humanity to their communication strategies. Because they tend to get to the crux of what people really need to hear and see from leaders or their organization, they tend to have greater and more lasting impact on operational goals and objectives. So having an understanding of both communications and change management – formally or informally – makes you a more valuable partner in dealing with the challenge of change.

Don’t mistake Laurie Dawkins’ kindness for weakness

Who have been the biggest influences on you, your thinking, and how you approach your work?

Honestly, my mum remains the biggest influence on my life. She died unexpectedly when I was only 30 years old. I was only just starting to appreciate how wise my parents really were. She raised me as a single parent and we were close. I thought I knew everything about her, but I was wrong. She was soft-spoken and gentle and a lovely human being, but I sometimes thought she was a push-over because she always seemed to put the needs of others ahead of her own and I couldn’t understand why.

But in the days leading up to her funeral, I had the opportunity to interact with many of her clients and friends. Every single one of them was moved to tears as they told me about her influence on their lives, both personally and professionally.

My mum’s generosity helped her clients and friends reach their own full potential – they had started businesses, embraced their lives as imperfect parents, taken risks because she stated her belief in them.

When I think of my mum now, I think of the saying, “Don’t mistake my kindness for weakness” and this is how I approach my own work and life. I try to treat everyone with kindness.

Thanking people, remember their birthdays, and looking them in the eyes when I have to deliver tough news are priorities.  When I create communication strategies they are people-focused. Being mindful of what would I need to hear, and how would I want to be communicated with, is vital.

Communications pro Laurie Dawkins

Laurie Dawins is based in Vancouver and is a Master Communicator (MC) and an Accredited Business Communicator (ABC). She is an overall insightful and collaborative leader with a solid reputation for executive counsel, strategic planning,  performance-based decision making. As an empathetic communicator, Laurie uses an authentic style of coaching.

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Sheelagh Caygill

Sheelagh Caygill is an award-winning content marketer, communications practitioner, and journalist. Based in Toronto, Sheelagh has worked for media outlets including The Edmonton Journal and The Northern Echo, as well as the corporate and non-profit sector in Canada and the U.K.

4 comments

  • Sheelagh, thank you for honouring me with this profile. It’s a bit like receiving the MC designation all over again!

  • Thanks Sheelagh for an excellent interview with our latest Master Communicator. Laurie has, and continues to make a meaningful contribution to the oft-neglected field of employee communications. She brings a much-needed dose of humanity to the workplace and helps others do the same. I’m proud to count her as a colleague and a friend.

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