As a massage therapist, I have had to develop a wide range of skills and knowledge to be able to provide my clients with the best possible standard of treatment. I have learned how to observe posture and movement patterns, how to find tension in a client’s body and apply the right pressure to the right locations. I have accumulated great deal of knowledge about human anatomy. I have learned how to adjust a person’s position on my treatment table, and how to drape effectively, for optimal comfort. And by now, I have probably forgotten or discarded more massage techniques than I currently remember or use.
But my most important skill, the one that I believe is the most important for any therapist or clinician, is the ability to communicate effectively with my clients. I honestly believe that there is no point in trying to treat a person, or their condition, if I cannot listen to what they say and clearly explain to them what I am doing and why.
The job of a massage therapist, while incredibly enjoyable and rewarding, has some very specific challenges. When a new client arrives at my treatment room, most of the time I know absolutely nothing about them, unless I have some condition-specific information from their referring professional. I have to talk to this person about their condition, health history and treatment preferences, conduct a postural and/or movement analysis, then come up with a treatment plan. And I aim to get this done as quickly as possible, so that it does not cut into their actual treatment time.
This does not stop once the client is on the treatment table; first of all, I need to make sure that the person is comfortable – adjust the head rest, draping and any bolsters, dim the lighting, warm my own hands before placing them on the client’s body.
When the treatment starts, I check in; “How is the pressure?” is perhaps the most common question that I ask. Then keep on checking in and explain what I am doing with each new position and technique.
Communication between therapist and client is more than just verbal. While I am treating, I am ‘seeing’ and ‘listening’ with my hands; where do I feel their tension? How to they react to my work? Quite often, I will make a client aware of pain or tension that they did not previously realise they had. When I find a very painful or sensitive area, I have to carefully observe the reaction; a slow groan or laboured exhalation is usually a good sign, while sharp jerky movements with the eyes suddenly becoming wide and alert is not.
Verbal communication may go beyond just talking about the condition being treated. I like to find the root cause of a condition, which can involve discussing a client’s current and past activities, general health or what they do during their workday. A client may want to tell me about their work, hobbies, family, pets, or anything else. They might ask me some questions. Or they may not want to talk much at all. I have to use my judgement with each new client – it is no good to babble away, when the person on the treatment table just wants to tune out and enjoy the massage.
It is worth mentioning that communication goes both ways. A dedicated therapist will want to do their best work each and every session and achieve outstanding results for their clients (I know I do!). While we aim to come up with a suitable treatment plan and perform every technique precisely, we cannot get everything right every single time. Is the position starting to get uncomfortable? Is there not enough pressure and you feel like the treatment is not doing anything? Is the therapist going way too hard and you are in agony? Don’t just grin and bare it – speak up! I can honestly say that I will adjust my work if a client tells me something is wrong, as will virtually any therapist that I know. You want value for your money and we want you to get the most from our work. Not to mention that we want to keep learning and improving, rather than just doing the same thing all the time.
Finally, communication is not limited to therapist and client; a therapist may work in a large multi-modality clinic, surrounded by professionals with a range of qualifications. He or she might work in a small, specialist massage clinic with only a few other therapists, or possibly even run a business entirely alone at home. Whatever the situation, there will come a time when the therapist needs to communicate with other professionals, whether to refer a client elsewhere for medical care or to discuss a particularly tricky case with a colleague.
A good therapist will always seek to improve their own knowledge and never assume that they know enough to be all things to all people.