Years ago I had a client named Jo who had seen me regularly in the past, and then stopped when I changed locations. I referred her to Mary, one of my absolute favorite massage therapists.

After months of not seeing Jo, I was surprised to see that she had booked an appointment with me in my new spot. I wondered what had changed. Even though Mary is solidly booked and hard to get an appointment with, Jo did not feel heard by Mary, and thus had come back to me.

I felt relieved hearing this. When we fail to listen and deliver a truly client-centered experience, even the best therapists are replaceable.

A client-centered massage sounds like what it is – a massage that goes beyond the generic to address the specifics of what has brought the client in the door. It means the massage therapist listens well during the intake and designs the session accordingly. The massage should demonstrate to the client that she has been heard.

We come to massage for physical relief yes, but – whether consciously or unconsciously – we also come for the emotional relief of being seen and being taken care of by another person. How can I take good care of my client if I am not attuned to her specific needs? I cannot.

Central to the notion of a client-centered massage is the belief that every person has bodily autonomy and choice. Yes I am a trained professional, but even if I have something in my arsenal that I think will be useful to try with a client, if she is not open to it, then it just will not work. If the client says ‘no heating pad,’ during the dead of winter then that means no heating pad. If I client says ‘I don’t want my feet touched,’ then that is that, end of story.

That said giving a client what she wants does not mean throwing my professional training and ethics out the window. On the contrary, I have found that as I honor the boundaries and wishes of my clients – and also educate them about the benefits of different approaches and techniques – they often become more open and more trusting over time. But this kind of trust has to be earned.

happy client checklist

  Part of your responsibility as a client is to make sure      that what your massage therapist excels at is in alignment with what you want. In other words, don’t go to a gas station to buy caviar.

As a massage therapist based in the notoriously stressed out and overworked capital of the United States a lot of my clients are looking for Deep Tissue work, which I happily offer. But if a client wants the deepest work possible, I am not the therapist for them. There are plenty of amazing therapists out there who specialize in the deepest possible work, and people who want that should seek them out.

The other key thing for a client to understand is that we do not possess the ability to read minds. Sure many of us are intuitive and observant, but you should always allow yourself to speak up if something about the session is not working. A skilled therapist, whose ego does not need to be propped up by the client, will thank you for saying something. The therapist may think she is giving you what you need meanwhile you are really wishing she would open a window or use a little more pressure. You are paying for this time. Why suffer in silence? As in relationships of all kinds, communication is essential.

That said it is easy for massage therapists – and sometimes clients as well – to fall into the trap that “therapist knows best.” I admit that when I first started practicing bodywork about ten years ago, I had a set routine that I liked to do, and I did not venture very far from it no matter what the client said. As I grew more confident and received more training, I became more adept at adjusting to the differing needs of clients.

Indeed at this point in my career, adapting to the differences among my clients is one of the most fascinating and delightful parts of the work. We all have the same stuff, anatomically speaking, but each person is so unique in how they hold that stuff. Human bodies are amazing and vast, and a client-centered massage is an opportunity to explore and unearth hidden treasures.

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