Socializing with Clients

By Laura Allen
[Heart of Bodywork]

A dual relationship occurs whenever another relationship exists beyond the client-therapist relationship, whether that’s family, friendship, or other connections. Although we are warned of the pitfalls that can occur with dual relationships in massage school, they are a fact of life for many therapists. From the very beginning of our time as a student, most of us practiced on friends and family. Especially in a rural area or small town, dual relationships may be hard to avoid, even if one was inclined to do so. We socialize with our friends and family.
In the case of clients who are not family or friends, invitations to socialize or spontaneous opportunities may happen. Occasionally, situations occur that require quick thinking and diplomacy. Consider these scenarios, and which one of them is most problematic:
1. A long-standing client invites you to an afternoon barbecue to celebrate her retirement and her bon voyage as she leaves for an extended cruise around the world. There will be other local people there that you know.
2. You are at a nightclub with girlfriends celebrating a friend’s birthday and having a few drinks. A client you have seen several times comes up and asks you to dance.
3. You walk into a cafeteria to get lunch, and a client who is in line in front of you invites you to share her table.
Number 2 is the one that is potentially troublesome. You’re drinking, the lights are down low, you’re wearing a sexy dress, the music is playing … it might be tempting to forget you’re this person’s massage therapist and just be a woman out on the town, but you have to consider how that might affect your future professional encounters with this person. We all have a life outside work, and we’re entitled to have fun, but we still need to be mindful when it comes to our behavior with clients (even in a social setting), and consider the circumstances. In this instance, it’s best to avoid dancing with the client.
Potential clients sometimes use social occasions as opportunities to get a free consultation, asking questions about this ache or that pain, or even asking for a free sample: “How about rubbing my shoulder for just a minute? Margaret recommended you, but I’ve been busy, and I haven’t had time to make an appointment.”
Many therapists automatically say, “Sorry, but I’m off duty. Here’s my card, please call my office.” Others may willingly give the consultation or the five-minute chair massage in the interest of gaining a new client. But again, consider the context. If this occurred outside at the big barbecue, in broad daylight, while you’re sipping iced tea, that’s a different context than in a bar with low lighting, wearing a sexy dress, while you’re drinking.

Laura Allen has been a licensed massage therapist since 1999 and a provider of continuing education classes since 2000, and is the author of numerous books and articles, including Nina McIntosh’s The Educated Heart (4th edition, Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, 2016), which was entrusted to her by McIntosh before her passing. Allen resides in Western North Carolina with her two rescue dogs, Fido and Queenie.