If Touch is Communication

By Douglas Nelson
[Table Lessons]

“You just seem to know where to press,” my client Ms. Z. exclaimed, as she uttered a laugh. “That’s amazing.”
“Thank you, but honestly it’s not that amazing, just good communication,” I explained.  “What did I communicate?” she asked. “I didn’t tell you where to put your finger, but you went right to the spot. How did you
do that?”
“Some of it was what you said, some of it was how you moved, and some of it was what I felt,” I replied. “There are many forms of communication.”
“I never thought about massage as communication,” she replied. “I kind of perceived it as a commodity; something you purchase. This seems very different, much more dynamic and tailored to me personally.”
“My hope is that each person feels that the session they receive is designed specifically to address their needs, rather than a routine or protocol.”
“Is that really possible?” she asked. “Aren’t people’s issues pretty similar?”
“On the surface, but underneath is a world of variation. That’s where the richness and real connection lies.”
“I’m still thinking about massage as communication and trying to process that. Help me understand how you think about it in that way.”
“If touch is actually a form of communication, then all the rules of communication apply. Think about what those rules actually are. What would you think?”
“Well, the first rule would be to listen before speaking.”
“Absolutely—everyone enjoys a conversation with someone who listens well. It is also possible to be a good, or poor, listener through touch. May I show you? I will demonstrate two different approaches, and let’s see if you can tell which one involved better listening skills.”
I picked an area of Ms. Z.’s back and massaged it, varying several strokes. Switching to a different area, I did similar strokes, but paid close attention to her tissue and responded appropriately. I made a conscious effort to keep the speed the same in both approaches.

“Wow, what a difference,” Ms. Z. exclaimed. “In the first, it felt like you were doing something to me. In the second approach, I felt you listening with your hands. Because of that, it was also much more relaxing, in a way I am not sure I can explain.”
“Doesn’t that go back to the rules of communication?” I asked. “Good listeners radiate a sense of nonjudgment and seek not to influence, but merely understand. In the presence of such an environment, we often find ourselves more comfortable with deeper self-disclosure, because we feel comfortable in doing so. This leads to an even deeper connection. What else might confirm that communication was successful?”
“That the listener somehow gets what I am saying,” Ms. Z. replied.
“Absolutely. We need to feel that the other person understands our experience. In a vocal conversation, the listener might restate what was said to demonstrate understanding. From a touch perspective, that can be demonstrated by locating and confirming the exact area of restriction, like the spot I found earlier. I think your brain had a sense that I was listening, and I understood.”
“I certainly did,” Ms. Z. agreed. “But what about speaking? I now understand how one can listen through touch, but what about the therapist being the speaker?”
“What rules apply to be a good speaker?” I asked.
“I suppose the most important is clarity,” Ms. Z. said.
“Agreed. More words don’t facilitate understanding; clarity does. Let’s do a similar experiment as before and see if you can tell the difference.”
To begin, I performed several standard massage techniques on Ms. Z.’s back, mixing them in random order. In the second approach, I chose to start with the internal oblique muscle, and then briefly but thoroughly treated every muscle in the same kinetic chain.
“That’s just crazy,” remarked Ms. Z. “The second approach was somehow clearer and more succinct, and I felt a powerful quieting effect on my nervous system.”
“I think that is because your nervous system sensed a theme. In good writing, every sentence of the paragraph should support and relate to the opening sentence. In touch, every action should also be connected to a larger theme. At any point during the session, if you ask me what I’m doing and why, I should be able to explain how it fits into the overall theme. In fact, I think people can sense that connection and, therefore, also sense when the therapist is spacing out.”
As always happens after a very connected conversation, there was a long period of silence as Ms. Z. and I both processed our conversation. Several minutes later, I began thinking that this exchange might be a great topic for the next Table Lessons story and began formulating it in my head.
“Did you just space out a little?” Ms. Z. asked, interrupting the silence.
Dang. Busted.

Douglas Nelson is the founder and principal instructor for Precision Neuromuscular Therapy Seminars, president of the 16-therapist clinic BodyWork Associates in Champaign, Illinois, and president of the Massage Therapy Foundation. His clinic, seminars, and research endeavors explore the science behind this work. Visit www.nmtmidwest.com, or email him at doug@nmtmidwest.com.