It’s always bugged me that some states require the bodyworker to ask if their level of touch is okay, not because the client shouldn’t give feedback, but because the bodyworker is the skilled professional in the relationship. Anyone can make a misstep, but in general, the bodyworker knows better than the client what texture, speed, and force of maneuver is needed to help the tissues respond best.
As a chiropractor (and perhaps also as a man), I’m able to tell a client what I’m going to do, and my clients seldom question my decisions. That’s not the case for most bodyworkers, and especially massage therapists, who routinely encounter clients who want to tell them exactly what they want done, where, and “how deep.” If the bodyworker is competent (and if you’re reading this, I’ll bet money you are), a treatment directed by the client is seldom going to be more helpful than one directed by the practitioner.
Bodyworkers are continuously choosing and changing levels of touch and pressure. The more range from light to deep you have, the better you’ll do in helping a client. (If you never use a very light touch, for example, you’ll be amazed how helpful it is in certain situations.) But the most important variation happens every second as you respond to small changes in the person’s tissues.
The success of any treatment has, in large part, to do with the nature of the relationship between the therapist and the client. In bodywork, most of that relationship is negotiated non-verbally. Its grace, respect, and clarity are what determine whether the treatment is successful. Most of that communication happens at the physical level, a “touch and response” that goes back and forth many times a second.
Therapists are trained (and, over their careers, develop sensitivity and skill) to understand the responses of the client and to adjust what they are doing at any given moment to move the client toward the desired outcome. They shift gears as the client’s tissue responds, which in turn changes the client, and so on. The sensitivity/flexibility of this feedback loop distinguishes a decent treatment (or a lousy one) from a great treatment.
As in much traditional social dance, in bodywork, one person, the therapist, has the role of “leading” – making (non-verbal) overt choices of direction, style, speed, and texture, and the other person, the client, adapts to those choices so there is fluency. A huge part of this is gauging the most subtle response of the partner – especially changes in their tension – and adjusting their own pressure and vector to make the movement flow perfectly in the right direction.
The follower has their job to do, and part of the job is surrendering control while non-verbally informing the person “leading” when something is awkward or difficult, at which point the leader’s job is to alter what they do. A litmus test for the dancer’s proficiency is to watch them work with a beginning dancer. They must adjust to the level of the other dancer so that the dance is still graceful and pleasurable. This is what the bodyworker does in a session.
When this process works best, it is seamless, and the two partners move as one in a way that is liquid, musical, and seemingly inevitable. There can appear to be no leader at all, as information passes back and forth without gaps or stumbles. Mostly, this back-and-forth happens in the unconscious nervous systems of both therapist and client and has little to do with conscious thought or language. The therapist isn’t thinking, “What should I do next?” but rather may notice what they’ve chosen only in retrospect. The most profound treatments are thus often completely silent.
Some treatments, though, involve a lot of negotiation that happens in words. While there are situations where this makes sense – a client new to massage or with a specific medical condition that is unknown to the therapist – in many cases, the verbal negotiation happens when the client can’t or won’t surrender to the massage event and thus feels the need to micromanage the therapist.
Again, yes, of course, verbal feedback has its place, giving the therapist useful information and the client agency. But all of us have experienced clients who insist on something that is, in our professional opinion, not going to yield the best result.
An old business adage is “The customer is always right”. The implicit message is, of course, that they often aren’t. Sometimes, it’s best to accommodate the client. But sometimes, if you handle the verbal interaction right, you can educate the client, demonstrate your mastery, and help the person get better treatment.
It can be really annoying when the client tells the therapist, “You Can Go Deeper”, or simply “I like it much harder than that.” At first glance, it’s a reasonable request: the client is coming to the therapist for a particular experience, and they deserve to have it. But it can also feel frustrating, controlling, and even demeaning to have the client direct aspects of the treatment that are part of the art, science, and technique of the therapist. In a traditionally female profession where the work is often characterized as pampering rather than healing, this direction, often given by a man, can come across as domineering and patronizing.
Many of the therapists I’ve mentored and taught respond to such direction by giving the client what they are asking for while bristling silently. (My protegee Eileen, who’s very small, told me that some men look her up and down dismissively before a massage and say, “You’re such a little girl… I like a deep massage”. She smiles and says, “Well, I’ll do my best.” In session, she gradually increases the pressure while meekly asking, “is it enough?” until the client is writhing and begging for mercy. Sometimes, paybacks don’t wait until hell.)
When a client seeks to direct you and what they’re asking for doesn’t seem to be in their best interest, it helps to have clear language for explaining your choice of pressure. A simple, confident explanation usually improves the outcome for the client – first, because they may accept your approach and second because they perceive your expertise, which may allow them to surrender and let you do what you do best. But you do need to understand verbally the things you do automatically, and to craft clear language for explaining it.
Developing the range of pressures in your work and developing your vocabulary for talking about how different pressures create different effects in the nervous system, will help you practice better and your clients get better outcomes.
If the client or practitioner is having trouble feeling their own body (and therefore the other’s).
Someone is scared
Either party, client, or therapist may fear that the therapist will exacerbate rather than help the client’s injury.
Maybe the therapist or client has a past trauma that the touch communication is triggering.
Feeling itself can sometimes feel like a flood – just too much to stick with.
Either party may worry that the other person might harm them physically, emotionally, legally, etc.
One or the other party is attached to a specific outcome irrespective of what’s really happening in the moment or ignorant of the abilities of the other person.
In some states, a massage therapist is legally required to ask the client whether the touch is too deep. That’s always disturbed me. Of course, it’s important that the client be comfortable while being treated. But by the same token, it’s important that the client achieve the goal of relaxation, injury easing, coordination, energy flow, circulation etc, etc., and the therapist is the one with the skills and knowledge to figure out how to create the desired effect.