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Three Secrets to Getting a Better Massage

I used to be one of those clients.  Yep, me.  The one who didn’t speak up.  It’s only been in recent years that this has changed.  One would think that after many years of practicing massage therapy, I would not have a problem with this.  But I did.  It was this unique, and frankly embarrassing, point of view that led me in 2011 to explore the reasons why some clients, myself included, weren’t getting the massage they wanted.

For six months, I interviewed people from all walks of life (primarily in airports, where diversity is readily available).  This process illuminated the fact that there are many clients out there not getting what they want.

The question looms—why would someone not ask for what they want, especially if they are paying for a service?  In most cases, it is simply a matter of not knowing how to ask, or how to establish an environment where feedback is comfortable to give and receive.  Bringing together simple truths from interviews with everyday clients, my experience as a massage therapist, and my own trepidation as a client to ask for what I wanted in a massage session, I hope to bridge this gap.  The results boiled down to three primary requests that many clients never make, even though they want to.

Understanding these “secrets” can help us all get what we want.

“Please, Stop Talking!”

Have you ever thought this during a massage session, but didn’t say anything?  I have.  Plenty of times.  It didn’t matter if the practitioner was someone I knew or a complete stranger; I had a hard time speaking up.  When I interviewed Mike from Washington, his main complaint was “My massage therapist talks a lot.  Granted, I have known her for years now, so I’m ok with it.  But in the beginning I was really put off by the talking.  I wanted to say ‘I just want to relax and get a massage, not lie here talking to you’.  So my advice to massage therapists is to limit the conversation”.  What is interesting about Mike’s statement is that rather than speaking up, he resigned himself to the situation.

A great way to address a chatty massage therapist is to tell her up front that you really like quiet sessions.  The truth is, if you are engaging in conversation with your therapist during table time on any topic outside of what she is working with in your body, you most likely are not getting your money’s worth.

Massage is deeply therapeutic, but only if the practitioner and recipient are present with the immediate experience.  Otherwise it’s like a shoulder rub in front of the TV.  It feels good, but it doesn’t stick.

There should always be an intake process where you document your health history and current needs with your practitioner.  In most cases, this will be a perfect time to mention your need for quiet, so you can deeply relax.

From a physical point of view, your parasympathetic nervous system kicks in when you are not in responding mode.  This means that in quiet space, your body rests, rejuvenates, and replenishes.  And you get your money’s worth!

“Do You Mind Working the Area I Asked You to Work?”

If you go in with an aching neck, then you’ll likely want ample attention to your neck.  Sounds reasonable, right?

Doreen from Nevada says “I once went to a local spa and I told [the massage therapist] what was ailing me that day and where I needed work.  She just did what she did, and that’s what she did.  She didn’t listen to what I was saying to her.  Consequently, I haven’t been back.”  Doreen did confirm, however, that she didn’t speak up during the massage.  Despite receiving regular massage from all around the world for more than 40 years, she still struggled with giving feedback in the moment.

In many cases, it might seem reasonable to trust the therapist’s knowledge and let her do her thing.  After all, body parts are connected.  But if you aren’t getting that “oh my, that feels so good” experience in the area that is hurting you, you need to speak up.  Licensed massage therapists are trained to adapt to the client’s preferences and adjust their protocol as needed.

During the intake process, a simple solution is to say you would love to have about 10 minutes on just your neck, for example.  If there is a specific part of your back that feels incredibly good when it receives attention, tell your therapist and feel free to ask for a specific time frame, if that is your expectation.  Being specific is the best way to get what you want.

My interviews revealed that clients often feel most comfortable communicating what they would like prior to getting on the table.  Anyone who works with your body can only know your experience through you.  Otherwise, your therapist relies upon her experienced, educated hands and instincts to guide her.  Whether it’s more time on a specific area, a desired depth for all or parts of the massage, or requests as seemingly mundane as needing blankets because you get cold during massages or preferring a specific kind of music to truly relax, trust that it’s ok to ask for accommodations.

“Oh, That’s the Spot!  Stay There.  Oh, No…Oh Well”

Riding the coattails of the previous point, this is about being specific with the feedback you give during the massage.  The challenge of giving feedback in the moment is well reflected in this statement by Kathleen from Colorado when she says “It’s awkward, because you are basically judging the therapist and what they’re doing”.

Even if your goal is relaxation, when your therapist gets to a tight spot that you want him to remain on, ask him to stick with it.  All you have to say is “That feels great!  Can you hang out on that spot for a minute or two while I relax?”  This is a dream come true for any dedicated massage therapist, as it helps to tailor the experience to your individual needs.

As previously mentioned, often the most comfortable approach for clients is to discuss this with the therapist prior to getting on the table. Tell him you like to be included in the session so you can relax into specific spots.  You can even phrase it as a question: “Do you mind if I give you specific feedback during the session if there is a spot I want you to stay on?”

It sets the stage for an interactive experience, and your therapist will likely appreciate knowing you want to be involved in your own wellness, moment by moment.  It may feel like you are having a long initial intake process before the work begins, but it is important to keep you safe and healthy, and meet your goals.   Come to expect this from your massage therapist on a first-time visit, as well as a pre-session check-in at the beginning of every subsequent session.

Speaking Up is Hard to Do

There is a perception that offense will be taken—or that the therapist will feel criticized—by feedback and requests.  In truth, your therapist’s goal is to meet your needs, and two-way communication is the best way to do that.  Therapists who initiate a detailed intake conversation, and then communicate during a session with the sole intent to enhance the experience and better understand your body’s patterns and needs, are displaying a desire to put you first.

So if you have a question, ask it.  Massage therapists are trained to assist you in understanding your body’s tensions and responses.  When there is purposeful communication, there lies the best chance of getting what you want.

Want to support others in getting the best massage they’ve ever had? Become a massage therapist at Indiana Academy of Massage, conveniently located on the north side of Indianapolis in beautiful Zionsville!

Article originally published in Body Sense magazine, Summer 2015

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