The Art of Communication, by Kathy Gruver, MASSAGE MagazineCommunication doesn’t start when a client gets on the table. Before you even meet a massage client, you have the opportunity to use good communication skills.

  • Have concise information on your answering machine. Mention your name/business name, hours, Web site and any request for information you’d like from the caller.
  • When you answer your phone, use your name/business name; don’t just say, “Hello.” Sound pleasant and try not to be rushed.
  • Find out why the client is coming to see you, and if you tend to get a lot of new clients, take a few quick notes as to who they are.
  • Once the appointment has been made, make sure the client has your address and correct directions/parking instructions, and get his or her cell phone number. Get specific instructions to the person’s house or hotel, if you offer on-site massage.
  • Mention your cancellation and no-show policy.

Once you meet a new client, communicating to his or her expectations and needs is crucial.

  • One important item for us, as massage therapists, to discover is how your clients found you. You’ll either want to thank the referral or keep track to see if your marketing is effective.
  • Have your clients fill out an intake form, and go over it with them to clarify. Don’t just toss it on the desk and read it later.
  • Give the client your full attention: Don’t be eating, checking your text messages and talking with them.
  • Ken Driscoll of First Health in Massachusetts reminds us to make eye contact.

For a newcomer, you’ll want to explain things in more detail. For example, let them know to disrobe and get under the sheet and blanket. I’ve been surprised more than once by a client lying on top of the table naked. Explaining more is better than having a confused client, especially when it comes to nudity. Telling clients they will be covered during the massage and what they can expect will put people at ease. Humor can also be calming—but only use that if it’s your forte. Some people can be nervous before their first massage. Reassure them, as necessary, and pay attention to the nonverbal clues, such as fidgeting, looking around nervously and shifting their weight from foot to foot. It’s okay to ask them if they are having anxiety.

Explain some of the benefits of massage, and ask your clients specifically what they expect. Is it relaxation? Do they have headaches? I’ve found you can’t just ask people the question, “How are you feeling?” Everyone tends to say, “Fine” or “I feel like crap,” since these are the answers society has deemed appropriate. Ask pointed questions, such as:

  • “Are you having pain or stiffness in any areas?”
  • “Do you get frequent headaches, back pain, etc.?”

This will remind them of why they came to you, and it will encourage discussion. It’s also helpful to learn of any injuries, surgeries, medications or areas on the body to be avoided. If you are told not to rub a certain area, take note. There’s nothing worse than providing a deep-tissue massage over a bicep where the client just told you she had a flu shot. When I get to an area that someone has told me not to massage, I touch it lightly (or around it), so the client knows I’ve acknowledged it and am moving on. If someone mentions a sensitive or painful area, clarify if she means “painful but would like it to be worked on,” or “painful but don’t get near it.”

If the client has had massage before, find out how often and when her last one was. Gleaning information about why the client left her last therapist helps you to avoid things she doesn’t like. If the client left because the therapist was too chatty, you’ll know not to do that. If she says she loved her therapist, this is an excellent time to inquire as to what she liked about him or her. You can use this information to make the client’s experience with you just as wonderful.

What about our regulars?

  • Ask them how they felt after the last massage. Does something need more or less work, or is there something different about their bodies this week? People do change from day to day as to what is aching; perhaps they played extra hard with their kids or helped a friend move. We can’t just assume we know what is bothering someone. Again, ask specific questions: “How is your low back feeling? I know it was really bothering you last week” instead of “How are you today?” You’ll get specific information, and you will let your clients know you really care about their condition.
  • For everyone, make it clear you’d like feedback on anything: the temperature, music and the pressure. They should know it’s their time and you are personalizing the treatment to them.
  • Alan Guinn, a business consultant in Bristol, Tennessee, reminds us to talk with the client, not to the client.
  • Once on the table, check in on temperature and pressure. Don’t just ask if the pressure is okay; most people will say “Yes.” Be specific: “Do you need more pressure here?” Pay attention to nonverbal cues, such as tightening up other parts of the body or holding breath.
  • If someone asks you a question about what you are doing, try to find a balance between giving information and being too technical.
  • Save some time for something the client may have forgot. Ask, “We have a few minutes left. Is there anything else you want me to address?”
  • Terry Clements, a massage instructor at Rasmussen College, reminds us to listen well to what the client is saying, shelf your own ego and needs, and authentically hear a client. 
  • Tell the person if you are going to mount the table or stretch his or her limbs.
  • If you are working in a spa environment, give the option of hot towels—not everyone likes that, and it takes away valuable massage time.
  • Ask if the person wants to have the whole body massaged, or if she just wants certain areas concentrated on. I find this to be one of the most important questions.
  • Give the client your full attention. Some massage therapists put on earphones and listen something else during sessions. You can’t be paying attention to the client if you are listening to lectures or other music.

After the massage:

  • Ask clients how they are feeling and if they have questions.
  • Tell them about home care and drinking water.
  • Encourage another appointment. Ask if people want to reschedule now.
  • Remind them permanent changes rarely occur with the first session, so they may need more.
  • If you’ve done deep work, explain that they may be sore and ice might be appropriate.
  • Get their address or e-mail if you haven’t already.
  • Give any information or handouts you promised during the session.
  • Follow up with a postcard or phone call, especially if they are new or had a specific ailment you were treating.
  • It’s okay to tell them you are always looking for more clients, and offer an incentive for referrals.
  • Make sure you give them at least one business card.

In such a personal business as massage, we can see how interpersonal communication can make or break a relationship. Be open and concise, truly listen, choose your words carefully and remember, more information is better than none.

Kathy Gruver, The Art of Communication, MASSAGE MagazineKathy Gruver has been involved in natural health since 1990 and has a doctorate of Traditional Naturopathy. Gruver is a Medical Massage Therapist, Natural Health Consultant, Reiki Master and Birth Assistant. She is currently pursuing a masters and doctorate in Natural Health. Gruver owns Healing Circle Massage in Santa Barbara, California, which specializes in medical and therapeutic massage and was chosen as a “Best Practice” by MASSAGE Magazine. For more information, visit