Whether you consider yourself a health care provider or not, humans want the same thing from you that they want in any important sales transaction. If a person is going to spend $70 to $150 on a product or experience, at a baseline they want transparency, trust and respect.
These three qualities are the key to successful relationships.
Let’s start with transparency. This may seem simple, but assumptions and familiarity can sabotage our ability to see the places in which our practices may be less than transparent. You may be thinking, “I post my prices,” “I list my modalities,” or “I clearly state my cancellation and booking policy.”
This is a good start, but what about those times when you don’t know the answer to a question a client asks about their pain or function? Are you honest about not knowing or do you flub your way through a quasi-explanation that neither of you fully grasps?
There are so many times in massage and in life when a simple “I don’t know” will more than suffice. Practice it in the mirror if that helps. Get really good at saying it.
What should you do if a client expresses that they misunderstood something or that something about the massage didn’t go as they had hoped? If you can do it honestly, be willing to say, “That was my fault,” and then explain what you’ll do to prevent that thing from happening again.
Be willing to be wrong and be willing to make a plan to improve and share that plan, whether it is an issue of communication, actual hands-on care or some other aspect of your practice that has affected your client’s experience.
I have written before about the dynamic of “the customer is always right.” I don’t agree that the customer is always right, but the customer does always have a reason—and that reason has to be important to you. Part of transparency is having open curiosity and interest in knowing more even when you feel like you’re being questioned or put on the spot.
Trust is a close cousin of transparency. A study published in 2018 in The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology makes a compelling argument for a propensity toward guilt in people who have been determined, by additional measures, to be trustworthy. The study’s primary author suggests that guilt stems from a sense of interpersonal accountability. Simply put, one of the best ways to build trust is to show that you care and feel personally accountable for things going right for your client—and to express a genuine desire to make it right when things go wrong.
How often do you use phrases like “I understand what you’re saying,” or, when getting clear about something a client has shared, “I think I heard you say…,” or when a client is being unclear about exactly what isn’t going well, but you’re aware that things need adjustment: “What can I do differently?” These are all basic, kind, neutral ways to show the person on your table that they can trust you to take good care of them and that you really want them to feel safe and heard.
One of the sneaky places trust can erode without our noticing is when we engage in gossip. Many of us work in small towns, or even in big towns that can feel small. We find people on our tables who know each other or who know people who know people who know each other. It can be easy to slip into conversation that isn’t entirely based in truth or that simply allows room for speculation about the lives, habits or character of others.
You may shake your head and deny that this happens or could happen, but it’s an unfortunate reality of humans becoming familiar with each other in an intimate space on a regular basis. Boundaries slip. Falsehoods get shared, or at least not refuted.
Discretion is an important aspect of trust-building, so be aware of gossip and turn the conversation away from it by bringing the focus back to the client’s massage. We address some of the ways you can artfully redirect gossip and politically charged topics in Episode 19 of Healwell’s podcast, “Massage Therapy Without Borders.”
There are so many tiny ways to communicate respect. For example, we can be ready when a client arrives for their session. We can have everything together that’s needed for the session and stick to our agreed-upon time. If we start late, we can check in: “I see that our intake took a little longer than usual. We’re starting at 5:10 instead of 5:00. Do you have time to be here until 6:10 so we can work together for a full hour, or do we need to end right at 5:00?”
Communicating respect requires perspective-taking. Ask yourself, “What would I want if I were this person?” Let’s say you get a notice that your office building is having a new roof put on and the construction noise may disturb your sessions on a particular day.
It’s important to reach out to your clients and let them know that’s happening. They may decide they don’t care and come anyway, or they may thank you for letting them know and reschedule. Either way, you made it clear that their experience while in your care matters to you.
If you’re not sure what the client wants, remember that it never, ever hurts to ask. I had a client this morning who said, in a kind of offhanded way, after a thorough intake and review of the session plan, “I think if you just primarily focus on my lower body that will be good.” I acknowledged her request and continued the session.
A few seconds later I realized that her request was not entirely clear—so I asked (and I used her name when I asked—another way to impart respect). “Sheila, when you said that you wanted me to focus on your lower body, did you mean ‘Please don’t touch me from the waist up?’ or were you thinking you’d like me to spend something like 70% of my time working with your legs and hips and more like 30% with your back, neck and shoulders?”
I wanted her to know I respected her request, but I couldn’t really honor it if I was guessing.
Transparency, trust and respect come together in a nice overlapping cycle together with communication (talking and listening), curiosity and humility. One more important skill ties it all up: self-awareness, which is especially important when working with clients of different cultures, belief systems, races and body types.
When I teach cultural competency, it always boils down to self-awareness. You have got to look seriously and honestly at yourself; don’t look away. What are your unconscious biases? How do you favor certain clients over others? What assumptions do you make about bodies? About health? About people?
Don’t allow yourself to believe the stories you tell yourself about how “I treat everyone the same” or “I don’t see color” or “All bodies are beautiful.” It’s not useful to you or your clients to be well-versed in what you should say or do.
The real gold is in looking yourself straight in the eye and being able to say, “Yep. That’s a thing I’d like to do less often or simply stop doing altogether.”
We make our biggest mistakes when we are busy pretending to be an expert, or when we’re lost in our own world and concerns and forget to value and connect with our clients. Appreciate each encounter as a new opportunity to use your soft skills, build trust and make the person on your table feel cherished and seen. That is the true measure of success.
Cal Cates is a massage therapist and executive director of Healwell, which provides massage therapy in hospitals, conducts research and provides advanced clinical education. Experience in hospitals around the U.S. has informed their blend of nerdiness and authenticity to create opportunities to be more effective, more human and more flexible. (Cal is gender fluid and uses the pronouns they, their and them.) They regularly contribute articles and guest editorials to MASSAGE Magazine, including “Massage Therapy is Health Care. Start Acting Like It.”
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