On Slanted Table

I don’t often have open disagreements with clients during a massage, but one did surface recently. A client came to me in desperate need of some elbows between his shoulder blades. The intake was nothing more than a quick hello and him pointing to the spot that needed my willing elbows to be placed before I exited the room to allow him to get on the table.

As soon as I came back in the room, he asked me very matter of factly, “Could you please raise the table up a little.” I had to pause for a second to try and make sense of how raising the height of the table would change his comfort level. How was it even noticeable as he lay there?

All I could ask in my momentary confusion was, “What do you mean raise the table?”

“Well, it’s too slanted toward the head and it needs to be leveled,” he responded.

That would make sense, if the table actually had the option to be tilted! But in the ten years of using it, that was never a feature made available to me. “You mean you feel tilted downward towards your head, and you want me to adjust it the other way?” I asked in order to clarify what he was asking.

“Yes,” he said as if it was something he always requested.

“Well, the table doesn’t actually tilt like that. It can only go straight up and down,” I responded thinking that would clear up the matter.

“Okay, but if you could only tilt it just a little, that would be perfect,” he reiterated.

I tried adding hand gestures the second time around thinking the visual element would help. I put my hand out flat and mimicked a tilting motion, “It doesn’t go like this. It only goes up and down.” I raised and lowered my hand as flatly as I possibly could.

His blank look did not reassure me that he was a visual learner either. A light seemed to turn on at that moment, however, and he murmured slowly, “You mean it doesn’t tilt?”

“Exactly, but if you feel that you’re on a slant we can make some adjustments. “No thanks,” he responded.

I was finally able to work on his back and shoulders, finding that spot he had his sights set on. When he turned face up, I said “If it still feels slanted, I can grab some pillows and we can make some adjustments, or you can rotate to have your head on the other side.” He lay face up for a brief moment and said, “I must have been hallucinating because it feels fine now.”

For a moment, it really felt like the first half of the session was going to be consumed by a lengthy discussion on table geometry. Once I was able to decipher his request and then explain the table manufacturers poor vision on the variety of table adjustments made available, I was able to offer up some sort of solution. Amazingly, even after our initial disagreement, he came out and booked himself for that rare next day follow-up appointment!

“Do you want to grab a beer?”

Over the years, I’ve had a few clients tiptoe past my boundary line by asking me to join them outside of the massage room. One of the most memorable instances was more of a “bro-ship” bid than a request for a date, but it still required tactful maneuvering on my part.

I’d seen this client, who came across as somewhat socially awkward in his interactions, a few times for back tension. Even though I noticed his odd demeanor from the onset, my conversations with him still maintained his needs as my priority. He noticed the thorough attention I give to my clients and became somewhat enamored over the bond that was being created between us.

He expressed how his massages had become one of his weeks’ highlights. I saw the writing all over the wall, yet I was still shocked when he popped the question, “Do you want grab a beer, sometime?”

It sounds innocent enough, but it’s the seminal request for starting a bro-ship. Now, I’m not one for avoiding a good connection when given the chance, but this felt like I was being put in a situation I didn’t want to be in. As I contemplated the question, I felt that if I said no, I could be insulting him and risk the chance of hurting his feelings. If I said yes, I might be in a relationship I didn’t want to initiate. I didn’t know what to do.

I followed my instincts and said no. He was taken aback by my answer and wanted to know why I couldn’t join him for just one beer. He said he’d even let me choose the date and time. What he wasn’t aware of was the unspoken client/therapist rule that you don’t generally ask each other out in the massage room. And if you do and get a no, you don’t ask why not and put the other person on the spot.

Does that mean therapists never strike up friendships with clients? Heck no! People become good friends or even end up getting married after meeting each other during a massage. It happens; but at the same time, everyone needs to be respectful of each other’s boundaries.

I saw this client for a couple more sessions and after he made his best attempt at fishing for whether I was more of a wine enthusiast than beer, I politely asked him to see one of our other therapists. It wasn’t easy, and I knew he would feel rejected, but it was beginning to affect my ability to give him a massage. He understood after some added explaining on my part, and I didn’t see him again after that.

It’s not easy trying to manage personal feelings while conducting a massage, but I don’t like sending the wrong message to my clients. Even though a beer is just a beer, unwarranted bro-ships aren’t my thing. My time outside of the massage room is my own, and sometimes I have to clarify that to my clients.

Fart, Snore, Gurgle...Time For An Ice Breaker!

As a bodyworker, you’re never quite ready for the unique sounds a body can make. Unexpected farts that squeak through or loud snores that wake your client mid-snort catch you and your client off guard. The other day, it did so in three consecutive sessions with me.

These potentially embarrassing client scenarios occur all the time, and over the years I’ve learned that ignoring them leaves an air of unspoken tension for a client who knows you probably heard it and would rather you hadn’t.

The first stymieing moment occurred early in my first session of the evening. My client’s stomach let out an audible gurgle that was one part dishwasher two parts squishy putty. Before she could react, I said “It sounds like freeing your hip flexors is releasing your intestinal muscles, too. Good!”

”Oh, I’m glad you’re getting to those,” she responded quickly, seeming to evade embarrassment. My saying something instead of staying silent served as a real lifeline for her before she started to get self-conscious.

The next session involved the all-too-embarrassing fart that made its way through a client's defenses. Once she realized it squeaked through, I was there to immediately rescue her. “Sounds like your body is really doing a great job of letting go.”

“I apologize,” she said meeky.

“Don’t worry about it. It happens all the time when I’m massaging peoples glutes. It’s part of the letting go process,” I said in my most conciliatory voice.

Her body started relaxing again after we both let out a little giggle, and we were able to move on as if nothing had happened. I think it’s good for clients to hear that these are normal occurrences and that they’re no big deal. Recognizing them only reinforces the fact that it’s nothing to be embarrassed about and that you’re not twelve years old anymore.  

As a closing act to my chorus of sessions, a client startled themselves awake with a roaring snore that half the studio easily heard. He woke up mumbling, “Was that loud? I’m sorry.”

“Not at all. Just enjoy and don’t worry about it. You falling asleep is a compliment to the massage itself.” He laughed and went back to his slumber.

When bodies are relaxing, sounds happen. Red-faced reactions are not necessary, however. I enjoy coming up with creative excuses for clients who would otherwise choose to crawl under the table if given the chance. No matter what I say, they’re always appreciative of dodging a potentially stressful situation. Even if my client never says, “Thanks for not making me feel bad for farting,” I know it’s what they’re thinking.

“Hi, I hate massages.”

It’s not often that a client starts the session off by saying “I hate massages,” but that’s what happened to me today. It wasn’t the first thing they said, but it was near enough to the top to take notice.

Initially I felt the session was doomed, but before my face could contort itself into a “What are we doing this for then?” gaze, I asked what sort of experiences she had with her previous massages. She detailed more than one bruising session with unforgiving practitioners that left her worse off than when she walked in. I could understand her affinity for a massage-free existence.

Once the session began, I asked her about the pressure early on to ease her worries that this would not be like her previous encounters. “I’ll be asking you about the pressure as I go through the session so I can make sure I’ve got it right. Is that okay with you?” She answered, surprised to hear the question, “Yes, thank you.”

Once I learned she was a mother of four young children, I felt she deserved some praise just for getting herself to the session. “It’s great that you could take the time to be here. Your kids will be happy to have a more relaxed mom.” I could sense that one session would go a long way in chipping away some of the layers of tension, but regular ones would start to get to those deeper not-gonna-let-go layers that make for more comfortable existences.

“How were you able to carve this time out for yourself with such a busy schedule?” I just had to know.

“I ask my nanny to come early on Fridays when I have something scheduled,” she remarked.

As I got to know her, I discovered an amazing individual who happens to have chronic back pain as a result of caring so much for her family. I wanted her to comeback and not because I needed to fill another appointment next week or meet my quota. It’s a proven fact that the people I see frequently feel more comfortable in their bodies and don’t have nagging pains that they’ve given nicknames to.

I felt compelled to say something. “Why don’t you come back in a couple of Fridays from now. If I can get to your back and shoulders again, I feel we can decrease Spike, the nagging pain that keeps coming up on your shoulder. Take a look at my schedule when you talk to the receptionist to see what I have available. Okay?”

She booked herself for a follow up appointment as soon as she got out to the front desk. As it turns out, she didn’t hate massages after all. She’d just been given ones that were a total mismatch to what she was looking for. Fortunately, my interest in people’s lives led to a more insightful connection with one of the most memorable starts to a massage I’ve ever had.

Professional Skills 101

A successful massage practice comes in many shapes and sizes. From a relaxed spa setting to the high volume corporate variety. The definition of ‘thriving practice’ is different for each of us depending on where we work and our overall goals. Although, I will say, the most successful practices have no gaps where there should be clients instead. 

As you delve into the reasons for the prosperity of accomplished practitioners, inevitably you discover that their success is due to their ability to deliver on our vocations prized professional skills. As dissimilar as our schedules might be, these attributes that represent us best are universal.  

  • Good Listening
  • Being Articulate
  • Professionalism
  • Positive and Polite
  • Adaptability
  • Empathy
  • Confidence
  • Punctuality
  • Humility
  • Ambition
  • Attention to Detail 
  • Problem Solving
  • Emotional Stability
  • Ability to Rebook

These aren’t randomly selected traits that employers look for, although they do, but a conglomeration of what brings clients back to their therapist. 90% of what makes a practice go from ‘there’ to ‘thriving’ is built on repeat sessions with the same people. If those clients know they can expect a session that starts on time with someone who’s confident in their skills and will be empathetic to their needs, then they’ll rebook!

Chances are you’re not going to find a workshop titled “Emotional Stability for Massage Therapists” as much as you wouldn’t find one named “Being Positive and Polite in the Treatment Room.” However, high doses of these is what drives practices to prosperity. In many ways, these are traits that help you achieve success in service oriented careers and in ours, they’re just as essential.

No matter what form or shape my practice has taken, success is rooted in strengthening these essential skills so I can build strong client/therapist relationships. Gaps in my schedule seem to be filled with returning clients and new clients my regulars refer over to me. Inevitably, it turns out to be a comfortable routine I maintain in every environment I step into.