Being a Client Makes You a Better Therapist

By Cindy Williams
[Back to Basics ]

One of the best ways to relate to another’s experience is to put yourself in their shoes. I’ve seen the looks and heard the words of skepticism from students in massage programs questioning why they are required to focus on seemingly minute details of the massage experience. I’ve also seen experienced practitioners who have been in the field for a while and gotten comfortable, letting those details fall by the wayside.

One such experience recently occurred, and it reminded me of how powerful it is to be on the receiving end of the client-therapist relationship. When we put ourselves in the shoes of our clients, we are better able to recognize through firsthand experience why those small details can have the biggest influence over whether they choose to return to our tables.

As an instructor, I am especially attuned to the details. With that in mind, I’d like to share this recent experience and what can be learned from the client perspective—from beginning to end. This will not be a comprehensive review of everything that needs attended to. Rather, it will be a synopsis of the missing details from my experience as a client.

The Massage Environment

My first stop upon entering the office building for my massage appointment was the ladies’ room. We learn in school that, per standards of sanitation, all waste receptacles must be covered with a lid. This was a small, single-toilet restroom with a large trash can sitting right next to the toilet. The trash can was completely full, was not covered with a lid, and at the top of the pile of trash was a soiled sanitary product. Not only was this unpleasant, but it also created an unsanitary environment ripe for disease transmission. It made me question how often the restrooms were cleaned. Not a positive way to kick off a massage experience.

Even if you rent an office space with a shared bathroom, it is your responsibility to discuss these types of issues with building maintenance or the landlord. Ensuring that all trash cans are covered and emptied on an appropriate, regular basis is extremely important.

The Intake Process

This was a sole proprietor with an office to herself. As I walked in, she looked up from where she was seated at her desk and said, “How can I help you?” While this isn’t a horrible greeting, a better greeting (knowing that she has an appointment with me at this time) would have been “Welcome! You must be Cindy!”

After identifying myself, she directed me to have a seat. She then asked, “What can I do for you today?” There was no intake form. There were no specific questions about my health history, medications I might be taking, special accommodations I might need, etc. There were no questions or forms to fill out regarding exposure to COVID-19. She did not wear a mask. She did not advise me about the need to wear a mask, although this could have been because I arrived wearing one. Regardless, no single word was mentioned about COVID-19, including no informed consent. In a nutshell, the intake process lacked information, documentation, specificity, and meaning. Unfortunately, this is all too common.

The Session Opening

In our brief verbal intake, I requested specific attention to my ankles and feet due to a previous injury. My left ankle experiences the most discomfort. Upon entering the massage room to begin our session, she walked directly to my left ankle, undraped it, and said “Let’s start here and get it out of the way.” I’m not even paraphrasing.

There was no session opening. Even if you are performing a session that is specific to a region rather than a full-body massage, it is extremely important to begin and end by addressing the body as a whole. The purpose is to center the client, connect them to their body, create a stimulus to the autonomic nervous system to shift into parasympathetic, and establish client comfort and safety by introducing them slowly to your energy and your touch. This can easily be done with slow compressions from neck to feet in a line down the spine, out the hips, and down the legs. Even holding the feet for a moment to tune and connect in, then doing a light feather stroke over the drape from the feet, up the legs and spine, and out the arms is beneficial.

Abruptly beginning somewhere with no opening ritual, let alone beginning at the most painful part of the client’s body in an openly verbal effort to “get it out of the way,” does not set a good tone for the session—nor does it communicate a loving intention to the body. The body is attuned to such messages and is likely to put up a guard rather than surrender to the practitioner’s hands.

The Use (or Misuse) of Communication

During my session, I asked the therapist several times to lighten the pressure. The pressure stayed the same. I told her in the verbal intake that the bottoms of my feet are very sensitive. She spent an excessive amount of time on the bottoms of my feet, grinding on a particular spot that kept causing me to flinch. She said, “Wow, your body must be needing this!” Nope. That’s not what my body is saying. That’s not what I am saying.

She used a massage gun on a tight area of my back. When she placed it on my back, my body flinched again. Admittedly, I was already on edge. Even so, when using a vibrational tool, it is important to place your hand on or around the spot you intend to apply it to prepare the body and nervous system for application. Even better would be to also say, “I’m about to apply this tool to the lower left side of your back.”

Even if your body-reading skills seem to be telling you one thing, what comes out of your client’s mouth is what you need to listen to. If they ask for moderate pressure, don’t go deep. If they say an area is especially sensitive, treat the sensitive area with the utmost respect and caution. Recognize that flinching is a protective response. Back off and ask your client how they want you to proceed. Asking, “Would you like me to move on? I could also use lighter and broader strokes if that would be more soothing” puts your client in the driver’s seat where they belong. It is, after all, a client-centered session.

The Session Closing

I had also requested extra work on my neck. It was a 90-minute session, so addressing both was easily possible while still giving a basic full-body massage (which is what I asked for). At five minutes prior to the session ending, she said she only had five minutes left to address my neck.

When a client asks for attention to specific areas, be sure you make time for them. Negotiate at the beginning of the session, so you are both on the same page. Say, “How about I spend 10 minutes on each foot/ankle, 15 minutes on your neck, and then spend the remaining time addressing the rest of your body?” The client can accept or counter your offer and, most importantly, they feel heard. This is their time to be used as they wish.

If you are mid-session and realize you are running out of time, simply inform your client and ask them how they want to proceed. Say, “I know we planned on 15 minutes of neck work. Since I’m short on time, would you prefer I only spend 10 minutes on your neck, or would you prefer I spend less time on your arms and stick with 15 minutes on your neck?” It’s that simple.

Lessons Learned

Although my session was chock-full of lessons, the primary takeaway was: Make time to be a client. Pay attention to the details. Go as far as to review your old class notes on the qualities of an excellent massage experience.

Foundations are established for a reason: because they are solid and can be built upon (not instead of). Each and every layer of the foundation matters, and each layer can make the difference in the success of your practice.    

Since 2000, Cindy Williams, LMT, has been actively involved in the massage profession as a practitioner, school administrator, instructor, curriculum developer, and mentor. She maintains a part-time private practice as a massage and yoga instructor, and is a full-time freelance educational content writer. Contact her at