The Difficult Client

By Laura Allen
[Heart of Bodywork]

It’s a fact of life that we sometimes get a client who is ill-natured, demanding, or just plain unpleasant to deal with. Our challenge is to not take it personally and avoid getting into negative countertransference.
We don’t know what is going on in people’s lives or what may have gone on in the past. Bear in mind that a client who seems difficult may be acting out of fear based on past trauma. An intake form or interview is not the place to ask whether a client has ever been sexually or physically abused, for example; that’s being invasive into their personal life.
Although listing PTSD as a condition on your intake form is acceptable, some people who suffer from it may be hesitant to reveal that. Their demeanor may indicate that it is hard for them to relax and feel safe. They may be worried that you are not going to be attentive enough to their care, and if you fall into the trap of responding to them with irritation, they’ll feel they were right about that. It’s best to respond with kindness. A simple “Is there anything I can do to make you feel more comfortable? I want this to be a good experience for you. I hope you will let me know if there’s anything else I can do to make you feel more at ease” could calm their concerns. Your honesty and compassion may help the client trust that you have the best intentions toward them.
Some clients are just difficult people, and that’s not about you. A woman once called my office when I was the owner of a multi-therapist practice, and her first question was, “Do you have anyone there who is a good therapist?” I responded that all our therapists were well-trained and experienced. She said, “I knew you would say that. I’ve read your propaganda.” She ripped through about four staff members before I referred her to another office. She kept saying, “I know a good massage when I get one,” but she couldn’t explain exactly what she thought constituted a good massage.
You can’t please all of the people all of the time. If you know you are doing the best you can to relieve clients of stress and/or get them out of pain, and are attentive to their needs as far as communication, pressure, and comfort, that’s all you can do.
In spite of your best efforts, it is sometimes necessary to say, “I’m sorry you’re not happy with my work. Perhaps my style of bodywork isn’t what you’re looking for. I can give you the names of some other good therapists in the area.”

Laura Allen has been a licensed massage therapist since 1999 and a provider of continuing education classes since 2000. She is the author of numerous books and articles, including the fifth edition of The Educated Heart, which Nina McIntosh entrusted to her before her passing. Allen resides in Western North Carolina with her husband, James Clayton, and her two rescue dogs, Fido and Queenie.