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Ep 13 - This is Your Client's Session with Boulder Massage Therapy Institute instructor Nancy Saunders

Smooth stones balanced on top of each other on a beach

Nancy Saunders believes in the trifecta of organization, communication, and trust. This instructor at the Boulder Massage Therapy Institute teaches that to be a successful MT requires mastering both analog and digital expertise, especially in the time of COVID-19. “Working smarter, not harder” is her motto and she has tips for MTs from her 30 years of professional practice and teaching. From the basics of client interaction to the skill set needed for establishing trust in the therapeutic relationship, Nancy wants practitioners to remind MTs to listen, because it’s the client’s session.

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Author Bio

Nancy graduated from the Boulder College of Massage Therapy in 1992. For over 10 years, she was the Massage Therapy Director for the Colorado Athletic Club in Denver. Nancy left the Colorado Athletic Club to become an independent contractor, renting a room and running her independent business within a massage therapy clinic. She learned to establish networking relationships with doctors, chiropractors, and OB/GYNs. In 2006, Nancy opened her own office, Saunders Massage Therapy. She specializes in orthopedic massage for chronic pain conditions and stress management. Her clientele has grown to include people living with MS, Parkinson’s, ALS, and cancer, and their caregivers. Nancy is also an instructor at the Boulder Massage Therapy Institute.


This episode is sponsored by Anatomy Trains and Yomassage.

Full Transcript

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00:48 Darren Buford: Welcome to the ABMP Podcast. My name is Darren Buford. I'm the Editor-in-Chief of Massage & Bodywork magazine and Senior Director of Communications for ABMP. I'm joined by my co-host, Kristin Coverly, licensed massage therapist and Director of Professional Education for ABMP. Our goal is to connect with luminaries and experts in and around the massage, bodywork, and wellness profession in order to talk about the topics, trends, and techniques that affect our listeners' practices.

01:15 DB: Our guest today is Nancy Saunders. Originally from Minnesota, Nancy Saunders moved to Colorado to attend the Boulder College of Massage Therapy and graduated in 1992. For over 10 years, she was the massage therapy Director for the Colorado Athletic Club in Denver. Nancy left the Colorado Athletic Club to become an independent contractor, renting a room, and running her independent MT business with a massage therapy clinic. She learned to establish network relationships with doctors, chiropractors, and OBGYNs. In 2006, she opened her own office, Saunders Massage Therapy, in Denver. She specializes in orthopedic massage for chronic pain conditions and stress management, provides injury rehab for auto accidents, surgical, sports injuries, and is certified in prenatal massage. Her clientele has grown with people living with MS, Parkinson's, ALS, cancer, and their caregivers. Her goal is to give them an escape full of nurturing and listening. Hello, Nancy.

02:15 Nancy Saunders: Hi Darren. Hi Kristin. Thank you for having me.

02:18 Kristin Coverly: Welcome, Nancy. Thanks so much for being here. You know what, you and I have some fun parallels happening. We're both massage therapists in Colorado, we're both educators, and I also attended the Boulder College of Massage Therapy. So I'm really excited to talk with you today. Let's start with you telling us a little bit about yourself and your background. What brought you to massage therapy, and then to teaching?

02:39 NS: Boy! Massage therapy has always been a passion of mine since I was very young. It's one of those gratifying techniques where you are just drawn to somebody and you wanna put your hands on their shoulders and you just want to massage the tension out of their shoulders. You can almost just see it emanating from them. And then when that somebody says, "Oh, that feels so good. Right there. Maybe move to the left." So after I graduated from high school, I did go to college for a couple of years, received my Associate Arts degree from Bemidji State University up in Northern Minnesota. But I always knew I wanted to go to massage therapy school. I always knew I specifically wanted to go to the Boulder College of Massage Therapy, which was known as the Harvard of massage. And I was thrilled to be able to enter the program. I was pretty young. I was 21 when I graduated in '92. And since then, it's just been an amazing roller-coaster ride. I love my clients, I love my profession. And now I want to be able to pass on some of the tips that I have learned in close to 30 years on to other massage therapists. I really want to help them to work smarter and not harder, and be able to take advantage of some of the wonderful resources that are available to them in the digital world that were not available to us so much in the analog world. They can have a much smoother transition into their new profession.

04:08 DB: That brings up a question. In our email exchange before the podcast, you mentioned something really interesting I have to ask about. You wrote, "I believe in a trifecta of organization, communication and trust, supported by a balance of the slick ease digital world and the personal touch of the analog world." What does that mean?

04:29 NS: Right. It's a mouthful, but it is a tenant that I try to live my life by but also definitely live my practice by. So organization, communication, and trust. Those are three pillars that hold each other up, and you can't really have one without the other. If one is gone, the whole thing collapses. Give you an example. Organization. First of all, let's talk about when we went into quarantine and suddenly all the massage therapy practices were shut down. I was talking with many of my colleagues and I'm like, "Okay." But you do have your client addresses, phone numbers, and emails that you can easily communicate with them and let them know that you're shut down, "But don't worry, I'll be back. And this is what's going on." And some of them were like, "No, it didn't."

05:24 NS: Again, first part of organization. So if you don't have that simple piece of organization, just having your contact information of your clients, how can you effectively communicate with your clients about what is going on with the quarantine, with COVID and that you will be back. You can give them reassurance. "I will be back to help you when quarantine is over." And then that leads you to trust. Can your clients trust that you will really be there for them and that you have their best interest at heart if they don't get any communication from you. Another just visual thing of organization, communication, and trust. If your office space is disorganized or if your paperwork, your records are disorganized, what does that communicate visually to your client when they enter your office and they see dead plants, they see it's dusty and dirty, they see a lot of clutter all over? Does that communicate trust? That this is a clean space, that they can feel welcome and comfortable here.

06:36 NS: Same way with if your records are disorganized, can you communicate and send off receipts, treatment notes, or any other types of communication that maybe an insurance company may need, a doctor may need, or just be able to keep them up-to-date on what's happening in your practice. Then, can they trust that you are really staying on top of things, that you are really paying attention to them and their needs, and also blend-in their treatment plans with other professionals?

07:12 KC: That's great, I love that. I think that'll really be impactful for a lot of therapists listening. Following up on that, with the trust piece, love the examples of the physical in the room with the records. When we're thinking about that from a verbal standpoint, a lot of therapists stumble a bit when they're trying to communicate with clients and really express themselves and convey who they are and what they believe in and what they stand for, what their practice is all about. Are there tips and tricks for how to use languaging to also convey trust? Do you find there are certain words or phrases that seem to work well, so that people can have a little bit more clear communication and get their points across?

07:56 NS: Absolutely. Number one thing is first, listen. You have to listen first, in order to then be able to internalize, what is the client telling you? What are the client's needs? And that sometimes is verbal and sometimes is non-verbal, physical communication. Sometimes, it's what is written down on their client intake form. Sometimes, you can internalize what the client might need, even by what their occupation is, or by what is going on in their life at the time. Are they a new mother? They probably have a lot of sleepless nights. They probably have a lot of new-born caring, aches, and pains. So that way, you can understand what their world is, you can connect with them, and you could be able to talk to them about the treatment plan that will be best for them. And also, you can also know, no talking, just let them rest, let them sleep.

08:51 NS: That's just one example. But also, I like to literally convey to my clients after we're done with the discussion of what is going on with their life, what the treatment plan is going to be for this individual session, and then I just like to tell them, "I'm so glad that you are here, I'm gonna take really good care of you today. Don't worry, your time and your money is not going to be wasted today. I'm going to take good care of you." And especially during COVID and using PPE, and our masks and washing the hands and all of that, again, it is so important to convey trust and to... I always try to say, "We are trying to respect and protect each other during this process."

09:40 KC: Absolutely. And I'm curious, when you touched on COVID and PPE, have you made any specific tweaks or changes to the way that you're communicating with clients during this unique time?

09:50 NS: Absolutely. It's funny, some of my clients were wondering, "What did I do on my COVID vacation of two and a half months?" It was not really a lot of downtime, it was really a lot of, "Okay, get up and gear up" time too, 'cause I knew I'm going back to work. I know I'm going back to work. And I need to make sure that I am ready to go. I need a make sure that I have my protocols in place based on ABMP, AMTA, WHO, the whole alphabet soup, CDC. What are they recommending first? You have to listen to the powers that be and follow their suggestions. Next is shopping, lots and lots of shopping, and ordering, and understanding that lag time. You can't just wait a week before you are to open, and like, "I think I'll buy a thermometer." "Oh my goodness, I felt like I won the lottery, when I finally found my thermal thermometer."

10:52 NS: So yes, it was a lot of buying masks, both cloth and disposable. Heavy masks for me, but also heavy masks for my clients in case they forgot one, or in case they came in with one that was inappropriate for me to be able to work on their neck area. Air purifier, something that I can visually tell my clients, "This will cycle the air five times an hour." I have lots of soap, paper towels, a lot of it is a balance of, "What did I bring in?" As far as PPE and protocols, but also, "What did I take out?" Suddenly, magazines are gone and the blankets are gone, and anything that could retain allergies, bacteria, germs, things like that. Hugging, that's the hardest part. Hugging is gone. I love hugging my clients, I love shaking people's hands. It seems a little strange to me that even though I am touching their body, it is not appropriate to give them a hug. I don't quite understand that, but I am trying to focus on at these protocols, and I'm trying to be respectful of people's comfort levels.

12:10 DB: A hugging has come up. The hugging question has come up.


12:16 DB: Do you have people coming in for the hug? Or have you tried to establish boundaries right when someone comes in or even before coming into the office?

12:26 NS: Sometimes, it's that non-verbal and verbal contact. Sometimes it'd be like, COVID hug? [chuckle] And people be like, "Yeah, sure. Bring it in." Others, it's like, "Okay, air-hug, we'll just do that." But the other part of the communication for PPE and post-quarantine is just tons and tons of pieces of paper all over your walls, stating what your protocols are. I also have a sign on the door that says you must wear a mask in order to enter. But I also have a sign on the door that says, "Don't worry, you're in safe hands. PPE is practiced here." I've put together a quarantined consent form that every client signs, apparently that is getting to be quite common. I did not even realize that would be a thing until early on in quarantine. But it does make sense. I don't know exactly if it's legally binding, but it is morally binding, ethically binding, consent binding. Basically, I just tell my clients that we are understanding you are receiving a massage in the era of COVID but that we are practicing safe protocols, that we are keeping the place clean, and that we are protecting and respecting each other's safety and health.

13:52 KC: Have you had any clients resist any of those pieces? Is there anything that they're a little bit hesitant about? Or are they on board?

13:58 NS: Actually, everybody has been great. Again, it is interesting when they come back for the first time, post quarantine. I have tried to convey to them through many email newsletters and through all my social medias for months before I opened, what I was going to be doing. I labeled and listed all of the different PPEs, masks, sanitizers, air purifiers, etcetera, so that they knew that I was going to have that on board. They appreciated that. They would contact me back and say, "Thank you. I'm glad you have that in place." But it is always interesting when the client does show up for the first time. Many of them are wearing their masks. Thank heavens. I did have one client come in, she's wearing a mask. She's wearing plastic goggles. She's wearing a face shield and she's wearing yellow plastic dishwashing gloves.

14:53 NS: So right away starts a dialogue, "How are you? And how do you feel about receiving a massage post quarantine? Are you truly comfortable receiving a massage right now?" You need to meet them at their space. And it's okay if after that initial conversation they're like, "You know, maybe I'm not really comfortable. I trust you, Nancy, I know you've got the protocols in place. It's me. I just don't think I should pull the trigger." And you've got to let them have that space and you have to let them go and say, "Please come back when you do feel comfortable. The door is always welcome to you."

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16:28 KC: How do we, as therapists, be conscious and not bring our own emotions from our personal life, whether that's frustration, fear, anxiety, into our communication with clients? What are your tips for really cleaning up communication and keeping it in the therapeutic relationship and not bringing the personal in?

16:48 NS: That has been especially hard, I believe this past year, dealing with the... Not only just COVID but also the political stage that is out there, the race stage that is out there. There are so many hot button topics out there right now. When I grew up, my parents taught me to avoid the four taboos of polite society, and that is politics, sex, religion, and money. So I really tried to follow that dictate with my clients. This is polite society, you are not with your friends, you are not with your little coffee klatsch that you can talk more openly and honestly, this is not your session. This is your client's session. They did not come in to hear my points of view as a therapist. Frankly, most times, they did not come in to talk. They want to be quiet. They want to enjoy their massage session. But bottom line is, it's their session. And if they want or need to talk, you're gonna have to listen. It's not your session, you are the professional there, you could just do your, "Uh-huh, Hmm-mm, that's interesting." And sometimes, if your buttons are getting pushed a little too much, you might wanna just say, "Let's take a break right now and just relax into the table. Let's just be quiet for a while and really enjoy the effects of the massage session."

18:31 DB: In the past four months, and this can be with massage therapy or any other service providers. It's the ones who reached out to me whether it was a text, a phone call, newsletter, handwritten thing, the ones who went above and beyond and over-communicated were the ones that have felt like... Even if it was just to say, "Hi, we're not currently practicing, here's the protocols", or "We are reopening again. Here's why you can feel safe coming back." Anybody who over-communicated to me and it just made me feel there was a trust that they had built, that they had done research together. The fact that I feel good about visiting this person again, and I... One example specifically would be, this would be a hairstylist versus a massage practitioner.

19:19 DB: But my hairstylist went above and beyond texting me, writing me several times, I'd say every three weeks there was like a check-in regarding an appointment I had scheduled and to reschedule. And my wife's hairdresser, hairstylist, did not. Well, my wife has not revisited that person. So and I have just recently had a haircut. So there you go. Somebody had established comfort and trust and made me feel good about revisiting them, and also reminded me of the relationship we had together. Just as you mentioned, we do have a relationship together. You provide a professional service, but you also know about me, care about me, all those things extended my comfort level, and my ability and willingness to get back to the situation quicker when there was reopening.

20:08 KC: Absolutely, yeah, that's something I've been doing. I'm not practicing yet. I'm not sure when I'll start again. And that's... What I do every month, I connect with my clients one way or the other. So I alternate. One month, it's a text, the next month, I send a little note by mail, I'm sure they quarantined in their home for several days prior to opening, that's fine. [laughter] But that's really my goal, is just to stay connected. They all are on board with the fact that it's not time yet for my personal practice, but we're all keeping each other in the loop and just checking in and knowing that we still have a therapeutic relationship, even though we're not seeing each other in person right now. And we look forward to the time when that happens again. So it makes me feel good too as a practitioner to maintain those relationships. I've worked with a lot of my clients for 15-19 years. And so it's important to me to feel like I'm also connected. So it's a two-way street, for sure.

21:02 NS: And it's fun. It is so fun to be inspired and communicate. And sometimes you could just be out in a store and you just see a card or you see, I don't know, a certain message and you just copy that down or you buy that card you think, "Oh so and so would get such a kick out this card because we were just talking about pineapples and look, there's a pineapple card that has some snarky comment on it." It's fun to dial in specifically to those people. I enjoy doing jib-jabs. Again, there's all sorts of like free or very, very cost-efficient methods of being able to communicate with people, especially on a mass level, but yet keeping it personal. So by inserting an image of me, my husband, my two golden retrievers, doing some wacky antics on a jib-jab, I had so much response from my clients. They're like, "That was hilarious. Oh my gosh, keep sending those. Where do you find those?"

22:09 KC: Let's transition a little bit and move into the classroom. Got a question for you. I'm curious, as a massage educator, training communication skills to new therapists in training, what have you found is that the most challenging aspect of communication for them? What's a new tool that they need to develop that they just aren't bringing into this phase of their life yet?

22:30 NS: Well, it's interesting, my class of students are of varying ages. So for some people, this is their first career, they're out of college. And so they're fairly young, they're in their 20s. And starting their career as a massage therapist. Then I have some students who are... Have already done a career and this might be their second or their third career. So it's interesting the blend of perspectives, and how we can all talk together as far as their communication styles, and we can riff off of each other a bit and what we can do and what their experiences have been. I'm still really trying to talk to the younger ones about the analog part, but mostly it's the same thing.

23:21 NS: It's gonna be a broken record of connection, connection, connection with your clients and listening. It's you cannot go into a session with a preconceived notion. And so, you need to communicate with your clients by listening to what they say. And again, that comes from non-verbal if you... And by just being more intuitive, what is their lifestyle? What is going on in their life right now? So I am just really trying to get them to keep that balance of analog and digital and listening and connecting and utilizing any and all social medias. Everything works off of each other. Everything feeds off of each other. And when somebody is looking for a massage therapist, and they find you online, it's so helpful and gratifying.

24:20 NS: I don't know if that's quite the right word. It's so helpful and validating when a client sees you online and can see many different online searches for you through Facebook, LinkedIn, your websites, Yelp, Google pages. Knowing that I really, really encourage all of my students when they establish their practice, claim your listings online, claim every single one that you could find. Fill out the profile, add pictures of yourself, your office, and fill in your biography, what you are doing, mostly talk to the client via social media, what can you do for them? And that is what's going to ultimately have them click on your website and make an appointment or pick up the phone and call for an appointment.

25:21 DB: You mentioned a little bit about the generational differences in the classroom. And maybe some of the younger students may have a problem with the analog. Do you find the opposite? Do you find the digital component for those who are older practitioners or second career practitioners struggling with social or setting up anything like that? Or have we moved on now where that's just universal and everybody understands that now?

25:47 NS: Oh my gosh, absolutely. You're talking to me, the analog girl who lives in a digital world.


25:55 NS: Yeah, I'm still struggling to get Zoom down. There are new entities that are coming out, it's like, every six months. This is some... A new digital entity and the digital entity that I finally just mastered, is now passe, and nobody uses it anymore. That is so frustrating. But that was okay. That's okay. That is one of the best learning lessons, is know what you don't know. Ask for help. Ask for help. [chuckle] You can ask for help from friends or neighbors or your classmates. You can hire help. [chuckle] Don't be intimidated by technology. You don't have to know everything, but if you know somebody who knows how to do it, perfect. Then ask for help. They are more than happy to work with you.

26:55 NS: I don't want anybody to never expand their business practices because they don't think that they can handle the digital communication. Then don't. There are actually a lot of small businesses, a lot of people out there, that is their job. They run people's social media's for them. You just feed them the content and they'll do it for you. What a fabulous time saver. As opposed to a therapist, who is feeling social media inept, spending hour after hour trying to get this to work, and you're missing out on working on a client, just pay somebody to do it for you. That way you can still do what you do best. I have a lawyer. I have a professional accountant. I have a website designer. I have a whole team of professionals supporting me and helping me to be my best, so that I can do what I do best, and that is provide massage for my clients.

28:01 DB: Thank you so much. I wanna thank Nancy Saunders for joining us today. Nancy, where can listeners find more information about you or contact you?

28:10 NS: Yes, my office name is Saunders Massage Therapy. I'm in Denver, Colorado. My website is and my office phone number is 303-733-4466.

28:29 DB: Perfect, thank you so much for joining us today, Nancy.

28:32 KC: Thank you Nancy.

28:33 NS: Thank you.

28:34 Speaker 5: This has been a production of Associated Bodywork and Massage Professionals. ABMP is the leading association for massage therapist and bodywork professionals in the United States and beyond. From liability insurance to professional advocacy award-winning publications, to the world's largest continuing education library for massage, to this podcast, no organization provides more for its members and the profession, than ABMP. ABMP works for you.

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