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Touch is a powerful tool.  The touch of a massage can evoke a multitude of experiences, ranging from simple surface feelings to represses memories, both positive and negative.

Unexplained and unexpected emotions sometimes arise during a massage.  When the body is touched and breath is directed to that area, a doorway can open, giving us access to emotions that have been otherwise hidden from conscious awareness.  “One of the most common defenses is to ignore, repress or stuff our negative emotions.  They are held in the body and eventually produce physical or emotional pain,” writes Carolyn Mein, D.C., in her book Releasing Emotional Patterns with Essential Oils (Vision Ware Press, 1998).

This pain is what so often brings clients to our tables.  Yet many clients are unaware of the connection between their physical and emotional pain.  Thus, the unearthed emotions that can arise during a massage may be as much a surprise to the client as they are to the therapist.

That is why as massage therapists, even though we are trained to be counselors or psychotherapists, it is our professional duty to be compassionate and empathetic listeners to our clients.  We need to know how to respond effectively and responsibly to our clients’ needs, which sometimes go beyond the physical realm.

“I am always at the power simple reflecting with supportive massages has upon my clients,” says Terri Kirwin, a massage therapist in Boulder, Colorado.  “I used to think I had to solve the problems that were brought to my massage table, but after learning these skills I was delighted to see that by simply mirroring compassionately what was going on for my clients, not only did they feel relieved but their muscles relaxed as well, making my job easier in both regards.”


All of us have a need to be recognized and appreciated for who we are.  When we are heard and understood, an opening occurs.  Our heart opens and our defenses drop.  Fred Keyser, an interpersonal communications workshop leader and author of the self-published Making It Safe to Love, says that mirroring is a specific technique for methodically giving and receiving the unconditional love we all yearn for.” It is based on the basic principles of a loving communication:  “Everyone wants to be deeply heard, received and understood.  All viewpoints are valid, even when others do not agree with them,” he says. 

According to Keyser, mirroring consists of four steps:

1. Hearing the other person’s thoughts and emotions.  This is includes the acknowledgements of nonverbal gestures.

2. Recreating this experience inside yourself by empathically trying it on.

3. Reflecting back the person’s words and what you believe to be (his or her) positive intention.

4. Inquiring to make sure you were accurate.

Accomplishing these steps can be difficult.  It may require many attempts before real communication takes place.  Experiment with them.  You will notice how challenging it is to reflect a person’s experience.  Common pitfalls to watch out for are:  responding with your own opinions, thoughts or feelings (which can be embedded in your words or voice tone):  jumping in too quickly before the person has finished the depths of their sharing: or using any of these techniques to forward your agenda, even if that agenda is in the form of trying to help.

As challenging as it may be to master mirroring, once it is learned you will find it much more effective than offering advice.  After you have practiced this art successfully, you will find that it can have a powerful effect upon your clients.

“The very attempting of each of these steps is a communication to your clients that you care and that hearing them is important to you.”  Keyser says.

Types of messages
In addition to listening reflectively, a massage therapist can also use supportive messages to help deepen the healing effect of communication during a massage.  Supportive messages are short, powerful phrases that enhance the sense of safety created with mirroring by giving the client permission to be him or herself.  Not all messages we offer our clients are supportive.  This is why it is important to pay careful attention to the words we use during a massage session.  Here are some examples of both supportive and damaging messages:

Supportive Messages:

I am here for you.
It’s OK with me if you cry.
You are perfect exactly as you are.
You are valuable for who you are not just what you do.
You are important and matter exactly as you are.
It’s OK to be afraid.
This is a safe place to be all that you are.
Make all the noise you need to make.


Damaging Messages:

Boy, you are tight – loosen up.
Let go, you’re fighting me.
You should express yourself more.
I feel so bad for you, you poor thing.
Don’t worry it all happens for a reason.
There is no need to cry.
You should relax more.
What do you do to get so tight?

Ineffective communication

The following are examples of ineffective listening and undermining statements, followed by accurate mirroring with supportive statements.  Notice how each version makes you feel as you read it.

Client(C):  I am so tired.  I can’t believe it.
Massage therapist (MT):  I know what you mean.
C:  Oh, you’re tired too?  Rough day?
MT:  I’ve had four clients in a row and my back is hurting.  I don’t even have time to get a massage like you do.
C:  Yeah, but I feel guilty getting a massage from you if you are feeling so bad.
MT:  Oh don’t worry about me.  I’m used to it.  What can I do for you today?
C:    Well my body hurts everywhere, but I’d like you to work extra on my low back and neck. They are extremely tight.  I am also concerned about the time, as we’ve talked some. Are we still going to have enough time to have a full session?
MT:  You shouldn’t worry about time.  It’s a figment of your imagination anyway.  Whatever we get done will be exactly what was supposed to happen.
Client says nothing: gets on the massage table but looks irritated and her breath is shallow.
MT:   Starting the massage. Boy, you are tight! You really should take better care of yourself.  Relax. You’re barely breathing. 
Client obliges with a sigh, tightening neck muscles as she does.
MT:  I know a class you can take that will teach you relaxation techniques.  I think that would be really helpful for you.
C:  Tightens body even more. You know I’d really like to be quiet and just get a massage, if you don’t mind. My neck is really hurting; can you work on that now?
MT:  Don’t’ worry. I’ll get to everything in time.
Client begins to cry.
MT:  Oh come now, there’s no need to cry. Enjoy your massage, that’s what you’re here for! How’s this feel, am I going deep enough?
C:  Uh, huh. That’s fine. Said obligingly as she tightens her jaw and holds her breath to try and stop her feelings from surfacing.

The therapist did not create a safe place for her client to be herself.  Her constant invalidation and lack of mirroring made the client feel that is was not OK to be herself.  Pointing out how tense the client was and giving unsolicited advice only served to stress the client even more.  Rather than deepening her client’s experience, the therapist made it so that the client could not appreciate the massage.  No matter how great her hands are her words undermine the potential power of her touch.

"I'll never forget a massage I had where the therapist kept telling me how tight I was throughout the entire session," reports Doug Richards of Boulder, CO. Every time I tried to explain why I was tight, rather than acknowleding me, he just kept telling me I needed to be different than I was. I left the session feeling ashamed of myself, and even though he had massaged me thoroughly, I felt tighter at the end then when I arrived . It is vital that we recognize how our words, when used unwisely, can be powerful roadblocks to healing.

On the other hand, a therapist who has good reflecting skills and is conscious of her statements, can take a massage to a level beyond just the physical, helping the client to open from the inside as well as the out. Here is another therapists approach to the same client from above.

Effective Communication with Supportive Statements: An Example

C: Boy, I am so tired I can t believe it.
MT: Sounds like you could really use a massage, eh?
C: Absolutely! I have been looking forward to this for days now. MT: You re happy to be here, huh?
C: Yes, I really am. (take s big breath of relief)
MT: What s going on for you in your life and in your body?
C: Well, I have been having a lot of pain in my lower back and neck and I have been running around not getting anything done with too many things to do.
MT: That sounds frustrating and painful. Can you tell me more about the pain you are having in your back and neck?
C: I can but I am concerned that the more time we take to talk about this the less time I will get on my body. I want to make sure I have a full session and that we have enough time for me to get worked on.
MT: It s really important for you to make sure you get your needs met today and I can hear that you have not been getting them met of late. Let s start the massage right now and if you need to tell me more you can do that as I work, sound good?
C: (Takes a big breath) Yes and thank you so much for acknowledging and accommodating my needs instead of challenging me. You re right, I have not been getting my needs met lately, and it feels so good to be met by you. (big sigh).
MT: It is my pleasure to accommodate you. You deserve to be taken care of. (As she speaks, she places her hands on the clients neck and begins the massage, honoring the clients need to get a full session).
C: (Client takes a deep breath and begins to cry).
MT: It s okay to let it out and make sounds.
C: (Cries even harder then suddenly stops crying) I am so sorry, I didn t know I was going to cry.
MT: I really hear that you are concerned about crying with me, hmm?
C: Yeah (she sniffles), I never had permission to cry when I grew up. It s scary for me to trust that it will really be okay to do it here MT: It s frightening for you to let yourself have your tears when you are not alone, huh?
C: Yeah (she says in a little girl s voice)
MT: Would it be helpful to know that I really mean it when I say I am okay with it?
C: Yes, I need to hear that again.
MT: It s okay to be taken care of. I am here for you. (she continues to massage as she speaks)
C: (client cries and releases tension from her neck, going inward allowing herself to be cared for in a new way).
MT: You re doing great! There, nice release. (as she continued to massage her)

By simply listening, reflecting and using appropriate supportive messages, this therapist was able to take the same client down a completely different path, illustrating the effect communication can have upon the experience of a massage.
Our touch is comprised of both our hands and our words. The degree to which we can successfully weave these two together will determine the richness of the sessions our clients will receive.


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