You have the innate talent, education and drive to help your clients. But do you have the communication skills to create sustainable, therapeutic client relationships that lead to a robust, thriving business?
How you communicate with clients helps them understand what they can—and cannot—expect from massage therapy. Learn more about the role good communication plays in helping you build solid relationships with your clients.
It turns out that mindful, honest communication serves both professional massage therapists and their clients, explains Carolyn Tague, MA, CMT, integrative health care educator and founder of Tague Consulting, which provides practitioners with knowledge and tools to work with clients. “The very word ‘professional’ implies that the beneficial focus is on the client. But in actuality, the practitioner, too, can benefit.”
In a Word
Communicating with clients revolves around what Tague calls therapeutic listening skills, which is as much about listening as responding. Here are a few general guidelines, and Tague adds, “You can interpret each point to suit your own personal style as a professional massage therapist.”
1. Ask pertinent questions that relate to why this client booked an appointment. “When clients share information beyond physical issues, it can be challenging,” Tague cautions. “There’s an intimacy inherent to massage therapy that can lead to client disclosures that you may not be qualified to address.”
To keep within your scope of practice, respond with more questions. “One of my go-to questions is, ‘What do you feel would help you most?’” Tague says. “It’s important to note that I’m not asking, ‘What can I do to help?’ The idea is to help the client use their own resources to find their own solutions,” Tague emphasizes.
2. Listen to the client's response. “Listening sounds so basic, but in our busy practices we’re often distracted,” Tague says. “We’re setting up the massage room, making sure our lotion bottles are full and checking that the client’s favorite music is playing. Listening takes more effort than you think.” The session intake form offers another way to “hear” a client’s story. “It can be as simple as including a question about what medications the client is taking,” advises Paula Nesoff, LMT, MSW, a practicing massage therapist in Hull, Massachusetts. “Any medication the client takes is important to know when designing treatments. This is an essential part of a good intake process that leads to a beneficial client connection.”
3. Follow the client's responses with caring feedback that acknowledges what they’re experiencing—yet remains within the scope of your profession and respects your ethical and professional obligations. For example, imagine that a client says, “My son was in a car accident when I wasn’t home and I am beating myself up about it.” Based on therapeutic listening skills, Tague suggests responding with, “That sounds like two big stressors: your son was in a car accident and you are feeling guilty about it. I’m glad you scheduled an hour of massage therapy for essential self-care.”
In this example, Tague explains, “My followup response remains true to my professional skills, since I’m not asking about the mother’s guilt. However, it’s clear that I’m listening! That builds trust, which is key to building sustainable, therapeutic client relationships. And it supports her self-care efforts.”
Carry the Conversation Forward
To strengthen listening skills, review your notes for each returning client before they arrive for another session, suggests Christine Brusati, CMT, RMT, practicing massage therapist in Mount Shasta, California. This enables you to demonstrate that your fundamental commitment to a client goes deeper than a 60 minute session. “Instead of asking, ‘Hey, what’s going on with your life?’, I open the door to our previous session. I might ask, ‘What’s been going on with your lumbar pain since our last session?’ Or ‘How about your neck stiffness? Is it any better?’ I think it shows how much I care that this client returned.”
Reviewing previous notes is a good policy, agrees Toni Masters, a practicing massage therapist in Greenville, South Carolina. However, she adds, you don’t want to lock yourself into last session’s evaluation. “Maybe a client arrives after having a bad day,” Masters says. “When that happens, I let them know they’re in a safe space. I never judge. I think that helps build trust between the massage therapist and client, which is so important for a sustainable relationship.”
Hear Your Own Voice
In addition to client communication, Tague strongly recommends self-reflection for massage therapists interested in building solid professional relationships with their clients. For example, before an appointment with a returning client, think about how this person affects you personally. Did you end the previous session feeling pity for this client or concerned for their emotional well-being? Ask yourself why. Maybe you recall feeling disconnected from a client. Again, ask yourself why. “These are important mindfulness practices so you can acknowledge your feelings, but then put them aside and greet the client with a clean slate,” Tague says. “In this way, you’re fully present with the client.”
It’s all part of building self-awareness, which Nesoff feels is a cornerstone for strong, sustainable client relationships. “With self-awareness comes the ability to monitor your feelings for different clients and always come from the best intentions,” Nesoff says.
Tools of the Trade
Healthy boundaries are essential for building solid professional relationships with your clients. To build and maintain these boundaries, Tague turns to a self-assessment tool that she created called Spectrum of Caring. The spectrum does not imply a universally right or wrong way to feel, but rather offers a way to gauge and reflect on your feelings. “In terms of caring, your goal is to stay somewhere within the center ‘safe zone,’ which would be compassion for the client,” Tague says. “This is where you understand and even feel a client’s particular plight for that day, but you do not feel the need to fix, correct, blame or change the client’s distress in any way.”
Tague says to avoid the Spectrum of Caring’s two extreme emotions, which can push massage therapists outside the scope of their profession, cause great stress and ultimately destroy client relationships.
At the far left is sympathy, which may present as pity. While sympathy is the ability to recognize another’s stressful situation, it can lead some to feel the need to “fix” this client’s difficult situation. At the far right of the Spectrum of Caring is empathy, or a state of being emotionally merged with the client’s situation. Whether teetering on the brink of excessive sympathy or empathy, the ramifications are similar. The massage therapist is left emotionally drained and exhausted, and the professional therapeutic relationship is in jeopardy.
When you’re considering how you’re relating to your clients, Tague suggests that you resist the urge to let these feelings define you. “This framework is intended to help a practitioner conceptualize where they are with a client at a given moment so they can ask questions pertinent to that moment. Can I be more understanding? Less judgmental? Less aloof? Less bossy? More present? What’s best for the client? What’s best for me? Your answers will change day-to-day. So checking where you are located on the Spectrum of Caring is helpful—just don’t lock yourself into presumptions and pre-judgments,” Tague says.
There will undoubtedly be instances when communication between client and massage therapist fails. In these cases, Brusati recommends gently suggesting that it might benefit the client to expand their health and wellness team. “It’s no different than when I see a mole on the client’s back and suggest they see a dermatologist,” Brusati says.
To be prepared, Brusati’s list of health and wellness resources includes psychotherapists, acupuncturists, chiropractors, physicians, naturopathic practitioners and yoga instructors.
Referring a client to another health care practitioner doesn’t mean you’ve lost the client. In fact, Tague says, “That client may see you as a companion during their healing process. Less stress through massage therapy and more therapeutic support from an appropriately trained health care practitioner could significantly improve your client’s health. It’s a good scenario for just the kind of sustainable client relationship you want.”
There is one final communication channel that Masters feels is instrumental in building sustainable, therapeutic client relationships. “You need a mentor! Someone you trust to bounce around ideas with you.” As it turns out, a connection to a mentor plays right into one of Tague’s tenets: Listen more, talk less. Listening is a vital yet often underrated element of communication. However, when done right, it’s a dynamic step toward sustainable, therapeutic client relationships that support a robust, thriving business.