Your Touch Reveals Your Mind

Client Connection Begins Before They’re on the Table

By Douglas Nelson
[Critical Thinking]

Key Point

• While we in the profession often refer to the therapist-client relationship, we need to remember that the connection is primarily human to human.

During a break at one of my seminars, a therapist pulled me aside. She owns a massage therapy clinic, and three of her staff therapists were in attendance. I could tell she wanted to speak in private, so we moved into the hallway. 

“I need your advice, if you have a moment,” she said. “It’s about one of my staff members. I am struggling to find a way to help her be more successful. While my office is extremely busy, her schedule is never as full as the rest of the staff. My two other therapists in the seminar today are newer and less experienced, yet their schedules are booked far in advance.”

“Does she have return clients?” I asked. 

“Some, but it’s mostly overflow from when other therapists are booked,” she said. “Her return rate is substantially lower than the rest of the staff. I’m wondering if you could help me identify and communicate to her some skills she might improve on. Maybe an outside source might have more impact.”

“I know what I saw in the seminar, but could you relay to me the tendencies you have seen in the clinic or the feedback received from her clients?” I asked. 

“Clients are a little vague about specifics, so that’s not helpful. What my staff and I have observed during trades is that her touch can be too forceful, especially as she initiates contact. Perhaps abrupt is a better word than forceful. It is also kind of scattered, and the sessions seem a little chaotic rather than relaxing. Conversation in the sessions feels a little weird too—kind of disconnected.”

“Does she follow the goals and preferences of clients?” 

“I get the sense she doesn’t.”

“Have you talked to her about this?” I asked. 

“Yes, but I don’t think it gets through. She acts like she’s listening but gets distracted easily or her answers don’t seem connected to our conversation. I’m struggling to find a way to have a meaningful connection with her.” 

“Actually, doesn’t what you just told me sound like the feedback you get from her clients?”

Her eyes widened. 

“Let me tell you about an experience I had with my staff years ago,” I said. “At a staff retreat, I created a series of skill-building exercises. At one of the palpation development stations, therapists were instructed to find a poppy seed hidden under several sheets of copy paper on a big table. I had therapists stand behind a big, vertical cloth screen so there wasn’t any visual input to guide their palpation. Therapists reached under the screen to find the paper, then began searching for the seed. I was seated on a chair facing the table to monitor the process. While that exercise was fun for them, I gained the most from it. Since we did this in silence, I could not identify whose hands were under the screen. At first, I found this remarkable, but in less than a minute, I could identify the therapist by the way they approached the problem. One therapist was methodical in her approach. Another was anything but, randomly scanning the page. One of my staff essentially attacked the paper, while another approached the paper and the problem in a very tentative way. Each person’s touch reflected their mind, and each approach was an accurate reflection of the work they do on the table. When you think about it, how could it not? Our actions reflect the inner workings of the thought process behind them.”  

“This makes perfect sense, but where do I start? Is change even possible?”

“First, do you think this therapist is coachable? If the answer is no, success is unlikely without her ability to do some self-reflection. But if she has a clear desire to succeed, then your job is to help her grow both personally and professionally. I’d suggest having a conversation with her about clarifying her purpose. From there, you can help her see that developing these skills can help her achieve the practice she desires.”

“But don’t some of these issues transcend massage technique?”

“Absolutely, and they are crucial to a successful practice. While we in the profession often refer to the therapist-client relationship, we need to remember that the connection is primarily human to human. We bring our whole selves into the treatment room for the purpose of deepening the potential connection to our client who has come to us for help. If that human connection isn’t made, then the technical skills have scant ground on which to build. Deeper connections create better treatment results, but connecting with others necessitates a level of self-awareness first. Connecting with others is a two-way communication; it also helps us discover more about ourselves in the process. In often surprising ways, massage therapy helps us grow as people while in the service of others. What a gift!” 

Douglas Nelson is the founder and principal instructor for Precision Neuromuscular Therapy Seminars, president of the 20-therapist clinic BodyWork Associates in Champaign, Illinois, and past president of the Massage Therapy Foundation. His clinic, seminars, and research endeavors explore the science behind this work. Visit or email him at