Tuesday, November 5, 2013

How to be a great massage receiver: speak up!

"But I only wanted a foot massage!"
A version of this post originally appeared in June 2013

It can be hard to know what to do if you've never had a massage before. When do you undress? How much? When do you get on the table? How do you get on the table? A skilled massage therapist should help you answer these questions*, but may not remind you of the most important part of being on the table: speaking up!

I know, massage is supposed to be quiet, right? Perfect and blissful and totally, completely relaxed, with "magic hands" that know right where to go to de-stress your tensest muscles. And sometimes it's even like that.

But here's the secret: us massage therapists? We're not perfect. We're not mind-readers. And although yes, sometimes our ability to find your right-there spots is uncanny, intuition and experience aren't 100%. We need something more: communication. From you.

That wonderful, blissful, completely relaxing experience you're looking for is what we want for you too, which is why we love it when you speak up and tell us exactly where it hurts, when we're going too deep, when something could be just a bit better. As I tell every client when they get on the table, there's no such thing as "interrupting my work": my job is to help you, and I do that best when I know what exactly it is you want. This is why I love the 5-point massage scale, because the more we are able to communicate (often with just a few words) the closer we can get to the ideal massage session.

After all, speaking up doesn't have to mean criticism! Sometimes the best feedback is letting us know what it is you love, or when we've reached that "sweet spot" in pressure. But if something isn't quite right, we want and need to know that, too. Far from taking it personally, I guarantee that caring massage therapists feel relieved when we know we can fix a discomfort for a client.

Here are some things clients have said to me (and I've appreciated every single one):

  • "Actually, can you turn the music down a little?"
  • "Oh, right there, that's where it hurts."
  • "Ow, that's too much."
  • "The blanket fell off my feet."
  • "Can you go back to my right shoulder again before I roll over?"
  • "This is my favorite part!" [during scalp massage]
  • "I think that's enough today." [when working an emotionally-heavy area]
  • "Can I get another pillow for my knees?"

(Of course, only sometimes is the client quite so eloquent. Often it's a muffled, slurred word or two, or even a hum -- and that's its own gratifying feedback.)

So here's your homework, if you really want to be a better massage receiver:

The next massage you have, speak up and give your therapist feedback, three times. It can be before, during, or even after the massage, though I recommend you say it when you think it, if you're at all able. What we don't want is you to sit there, pulling away from the experience, wondering "should I say something? maybe she'll figure it out... oh dear, maybe I should say something!" If you think it, the answer is yes! Please do!

You get a better massage, the therapist knows more about what you like, or don't, for next time, and both of you walk away knowing you helped each other have a better experience. Everybody wins.

*To answer the above frequently asked questions: after the therapist has left the room; as much as you want; after getting undressed; and ask if you need help. Between the sheets, please.

Photo credits: Kristy Topping on Flickr. Creative Commons license.


  1. Since I was a teenager when my mom went to massage school, I got to volunteer to be her "homework" and because we had such a close relationship it was easy to verbalize what felt good and what didn't. I always brought that with me to other therapist's tables later in life, and was grateful to know that it really is in everyone's best interest to just speak up! Another great post, Arwyn <3

    1. Oh, I wish everyone could have that experience. Too often, clients think that the massage therapist is the "expert" -- and that's true, to some extent, but only YOU are the expert in YOU. I would love to see more clients see massage work as the collaboration it truly is.


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