Giving and Receiving Feedback

How to Get the Most out of Professional Massage Exchanges

By Anne Williams
[Classroom to Client]

Whether in a classroom lab or in a professional setting, giving valuable feedback to your counterpart during massage exchanges can feel uncomfortable. We try to avoid the situation by offering vague general comments like, “It was great,” or “Thanks for the massage,” or “I was really relaxed.” It’s not hard to see that such generalizations rarely prove useful to help students or colleagues improve their massage skills.
Giving and receiving good feedback is essential to professional development. Self-awareness, boundary setting, basic communication skills, and massage technique improve when you and your fellow bodyworkers move beyond comments that are evasive, judgmental, personal, or vague, and start offering feedback that is specific enough to promote positive changes in professional behavior and massage technique.
Once both partners are on board for this level of communication, here are some suggestions to help you achieve feedback mastery.

Guidelines for Giving Constructive Feedback
When you give constructive feedback, you focus on a behavior that needs to be changed or adjusted in order to improve performance, not on the person themselves. Comments that address one’s inherent characteristics or personality should be avoided because they tend toward praise or criticism, which is different than feedback. Praise is the expression of approval or admiration, while criticism is defined as faultfinding or censure. Neither praise nor criticism helps people make positive changes that improve their performance. Instead, egos are stroked or feelings are bruised, causing an unsafe and unbalanced learning environment. These suggestions will ensure your feedback focuses solely on performance:
1. Check In
Ask yourself, “Am I ready to give feedback based on my observations with specific suggestions for changes? Do I have any motivations for giving feedback other than to help my classmate/colleague improve?” If you feel ready to give good feedback, proceed. If you don’t, take some time to reflect on your feelings and write out your feedback. Then, check what you have written against the rest of the criteria on this list.
2. Respond Quickly
Give feedback as soon as you notice a behavior that needs correcting. If a stroke feels too light, alert your therapist during the stroke by saying something like, “Would you deepen the pressure one or two notches? Yes, that feels deeper, but you can still drop one notch deeper. Now you’ve got it!”
3. Be Consistent
Sometimes the behavior improves and then the unwanted behavior reappears. Give feedback repeatedly to ensure your therapist makes the necessary change. For example, “The pressure feels too light again. Good! Now the stroke is deep enough.”
4. Stay Descriptive
Describe what you observed or felt directly without the need to praise or criticize. For example, “When you undraped my leg, it felt as if you were holding the sheet at an angle that might expose me. Can you hold the sheet lower so I don’t feel a draft?” If you go into praising mode by saying something like, “I know you are really good at draping—and I probably don’t know what I’m talking about—but it felt a little bit like you were exposing me during the leg drape,” you devalue your own feelings. If you go into criticizing mode by saying something like, “Your draping skills are bad. You always expose me when I’m your client and I can never feel safe with you,” your feedback might cause hurt feelings or be rejected by your therapist altogether.
5. Focus on Improvement
Explain the impact of the behavior on your experience and suggest specific changes that would improve your experience as a client. For example: “It feels like you are cutting the stroke short on my thigh. What if you took the stroke all the way up and around my greater trochanter instead? That would feel relaxing and fluid to me. Yes! That’s it! That feels so much better!”
6. Respond to Change
When the therapist changes her stroke or adjusts the behavior based on your feedback, respond to the change with reinforcing statements like, “Yes, that feels better,” or “You’re on the right track, but slow down just a little bit more. Yes! That’s perfect!”
7. Find Balance
Give balanced, overall feedback on massage exchanges by providing information both on what worked and what didn’t work. Avoid giving feedback on only one or the other.
8. Be Specific
Remember vague feedback is not helpful. If you say, “That was great,” it is as useless as saying, “That was terrible.” Give descriptive, specific feedback that can help your therapist improve his or her techniques. For example, “What I really liked was the way you transitioned your strokes from my back through my gluteal muscles and then down my legs. It was soothing, and felt like it helped me to connect all of my body. The area that seems to need improvement is the variety of strokes you use. I felt effleurage and friction with your forearm, but you never used petrissage, tapotement, vibration, or range of motion. I would have enjoyed the friction more if you had used different application methods. It would have been great to feel circular friction down my erector muscles, and linear friction on my hamstrings.”
9. Welcome Feedback
After you give your partner feedback on his massage, allow him some time to absorb it and write it down. Then, ask for feedback on the usefulness of the suggestions you gave him. Through this type of back-and-forth communication, you can build trust in each other and improve your skills.

Guidelines for Receiving Constructive Feedback
Receiving feedback can be even more unnerving than giving it. When you know how to evaluate, interpret, and learn from feedback, the process becomes easy and welcomed. These guidelines can help:
1. Avoid Defensiveness
It can be difficult to accept good constructive feedback without defensiveness. If you find yourself justifying your position (e.g., telling your partner, “Your skin is really dry and it’s hard to massage, even with lubricant”), making excuses (e.g., “I’m not feeling very motivated today and that’s why I didn’t give you a good massage”), sulking, feeling angry, or withdrawing into silence, it’s a safe bet you are shielding yourself with defensiveness. Let the defensiveness go, because it doesn’t support your improvement. Instead, with the help of your partner, make a list of three things to focus on during the next massage.
2. Take a Time-Out
Sometimes even good constructive feedback causes feelings of sadness, humiliation, or a loss of self-esteem. Separate the feedback from yourself. This is information about a particular skill—a skill you can learn and will learn to do better in the future—not about your ability to succeed, inherent traits, personality, or values.
3. Ask For More
When you get feedback from someone who knows how to articulate an experience and provide suggestions for improvements, it can be thrilling. Don’t miss out on the opportunity to learn. Instead, ask for more! Get into the nitty-gritty of a technique. Try it multiple ways while the feedback giver responds, “Yes,” “Almost,” “No, not quite,” “Try this,” or “Perfect!”
4. Implement the Feedback
Feedback on the depth, speed, positioning, and flow of strokes may be easy to adjust during the massage while you receive the input, but will you remember it for the next massage? When you get feedback, you want to have a plan in place so you can capture it and review it later. It works well to write down three things that really worked and three things you want to change on an index card. Ask your partner to help you prioritize your goals for improvement and list specific suggestions for the next massage. On one side of the card, write what you did well. On the other side of the card write what you want to improve. Create one card from each practice session and review your cards directly before you give a massage. As you master skills, place a big check mark on the card to celebrate your improvements!
Share these guidelines with your exchange partner so you’re both working from the same safe, informed space, and practice, practice, practice.

Anne Williams is the director of education for Associated Bodywork & Massage Professionals and author of Massage Mastery: from Student to Professional (Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, 2012) and Spa Bodywork: A Guide for Massage Therapists (Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, 2014). She can be reached at