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4 Steps To Building A Successful Therapeutic Relationship With Your Patients

4 Steps To Building A Successful Therapeutic Relationship With Your Patients

There was something different about the way she said goodbye.

The lack of communication was strange as her typical six or seven text messages were never sent.

I pulled in the driveway and wondered why she hadn’t gotten home from work yet?

I walked to the top of the stairs and there it was stuck to the fridge, almost glowing because it stood out from everything around it.

That letter told me about the pain she was feeling that I wasn’t able to fix, but really just didn’t know how to. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to, I just didn’t have the ability or maybe the proper tools to.

The last few months had been tough and I guess something I had said, done, or possibly not done was the last straw.

To be honest, I really didn’t know how to deal with our issues and sometimes chose to ignore things because well…it was just easier.

The strong woman that she was had long before decided to move on, since I couldn’t be the man she needed. She put her interests first.

I walked through the house alone.

The relationship we had taken so much time to build up was now gone because I didn’t know how to deal with it.

Why Therapeutic Relationships Are More Important For Massage Therapists

Our careers are built on relationships. 

Patients can go to a Chiropractor, Physiotherapist or even their Doctor and sometimes get a total of 15min with them. When a patient comes to you they get you for anywhere from 30min – two hours, of direct contact.

That time is your opportunity, especially when it’s a first time patient. You could be the best therapist in the world but if you don’t take the time to cultivate a relationship with that person, your efforts will be in vain.

So what can we do to build a solid relationship with our patients?

  1. Make a damn good first impression
  2. Read your patient
  3. Build a good foundation through assessment
  4. Build trust

1. Make A Damn Good First Impression

Remember the old saying “you never get a second chance to make a first impression”?

It is quite frankly the start to any good relationship. Even the girl I spoke about at the beginning must have been impressed the first time we met, it turns out I just couldn’t sustain it.

Greet everyone with a big heartfelt smile, they can tell if you’re faking it. This can set the tone for the rest of the treatment.

It’s important to remember that when your patients come in, it’s all about them. They’re paying you and it is their time.

So, no matter what is going on in your life, it’s kind of irrelevant. 

The more we can do to set them at ease before the treatment even starts, the better. Your patients have a ton of things going on in their lives stressing them out, including whatever injury they’re coming in for. This is not a time for you to come across in any kind of a frustrated way because you’re not having the best day, remember they’re paying you to help.

I used to work with a guy who was constantly stressed out about home life. He would fly off the handle about anything and could only communicate if he was yelling. Everyone was scared to deal with him. But, if he smoked a joint (yes this was happening in an industrial mill) he was way more approachable and easier to deal with.

The only way you could tell?

You could see him grinning ear to ear from across the mill.

Now in no way am I suggesting that you should smoke a joint at the start of your day in the clinic. But, the only way we could tell if he was going to be easy to deal with (which set us at ease) was when we saw that big grin.

Your patients will read you the same way. Most of the time they are coming in to relieve some stress and deal with a variety of other issues.

Do your best to set them at ease right away. 

2. Read Your Patient

This starts to happen as soon as you greet your patient.

Are they in a good mood and happily walking into your room?

Are they slumped forward and feeling down?

Read their body language.

This makes a huge difference in your treatment. If they’re feeling down and in a bad mood, they may not be as happy with your treatment as when they come in with a better frame of mind.

The results of the treatment may reflect that.

Other than getting this massage and relieving some stress, what can be done to elevate their mood?

Change your music to something more upbeat. It doesn’t always have to be new age spa music (in fact if I played that all day in my treatment room, I’d have to jump out the window), throw some 80’s music or something else they like on and elevate the mood a bit.

Try telling them a story or a good (albeit clean) joke to bring their mood up. Recite your favourite part of a a Seinfeld episode to them.

Get them to tell you a story about something great happening in their lives right now. Get them to talk about their kids, another loved one, or some accomplishment they have had in the last while. People love to talk about themselves, so ask them to.

I’ve heard it said that “the only thing we should be talking to our patients about is their healthcare”.

If that was the only thing you ever talked to, or allowed your patient to talk about, I doubt you’d get too many repeat patients. While the conversation should always be kept professional, patients aren’t coming in to be treated by a robot.

Your personality is part of what keeps them coming back. 

3. Build A Good Foundation Through Assessment

I didn’t completely understand what my teachers were harping on me so much about when I was in college.

They would get after me about “make sure you do three different assessments with each patient”. Then I became one of those teachers harping on the students.

Assessment is your foundation. 

A good assessment isn’t just to give you an idea of what’s going on with your patient, to tell you what areas to treat.

It’s your proof.

It is your opportunity to prove that you know what you’re doing and that you did a good job, that you made a difference. When you can perform the same orthopaedic tests after their treatment and demonstrate the greater range of motion, decrease in pain or freedom of movement, it instills faith in you and what you do.

Even if you’re a little stumped on what assessment to do, make something up, figure something out. Then look up what test you could do while they are getting on the table. You can always do more tests during the treatment.

In fact, get them moving on the table, so that you both get feedback about how the treatment is going.

It’s amazing the difference it makes when part way through a treatment someone can only move a certain amount and it continues to get better as the treatment progresses because you continually assess.

Photo by: Roger Mommaerts

Photo by: Roger Mommaerts

4. Build Trust

This is one of those areas where we are pretty privileged.

There is an assumed trust before our patients event get there. They know coming in that they are going to be naked on a table. That’s a pretty huge thing for anyone to give to us. Think about it, even before meeting us, they have enough faith to take their clothes off and just lay there, assuming we will be professional and bring no harm to them.

It’s our job to in still that trust immediately.

For me as a male therapist this is huge. Not everyone is comfortable coming in to see me, and some do it reluctantly. There are times I have to put people at ease before even starting an assessment (although I think I have an advantage from dealing with people in emergency settings) and let them voice how they’re not overly comfortable being treated by a guy, but they just need treatment.

Fair enough.

Let them talk. This is a big opportunity to build trust. After the treatment, when they realize nothing bad happened or was going to happen, they’re usually happy to book in again. 

In a conversation with someone a couple of weeks ago, they told me that their spouse had asked:

“What is so wrong with you, that you have to go for a massage once a week?”

The response:

“It’s more than just a massage, It’s my therapy. I get to unload about life, I get a good belly laugh and I get to de-stress”

Sometimes people need a non-judgemental ear. Allowing them to unload about the stress of life can me more valuable than the actual treatment (while of course keeping our professional boundaries in check without offering advice or counselling).

When people know that what they say in the room stays in the room, (think of your room like Vegas, okay maybe not all of Vegas, but you get what I mean), it builds their trust in coming back to see you again. Especially when different family members come in and talk about home life. We definitely don’t want to cross a line and say something to another family member that was said to you in confidence.

If someone comes in with a condition or injury you’re not sure how to deal with, refer them to someone who can. It’s okay to admit you’re not sure how to deal with something, just get them to someone who does. Trust me they’ll respect you for it.

Use these four steps to build a therapeutic relationship with your patients. Although some of these suggestions may seem like common sense, sometimes it’s easy to become complacent in practice. Even though I named the fourth one building trust, using the first three steps are a good way to set up the foundation to build trust. Communicate effectively with your patients when they describe their pain to you, figure out how to deal with it. Refer out and collaborate if necessary. A patient can pick any Massage Therapist in their community to use for their healthcare, being engaged and building relationships with the people who come to see you is what will keep them coming back. Be the therapist they need so that you never get a “goodbye letter” from your patient. Now if someone could just tell me how to get the TV and the Netflix account back that would be awesome.


As the creator of the site, I hope you like what you’re reading. I’m a Registered Massage Therapist in Victoria BC, former Massage college clinical supervisor, First Responder instructor, hockey fan and volunteer firefighter. Come hang out on the facebook page, where we can share some ideas about how to improve the perception of the Massage Therapy industry.

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Jamie Johnston

Founder at The MTDC
As the creator of the site, I hope you like what you’re reading. I’m a Registered Massage Therapist in Victoria BC, former Massage college clinical supervisor, First Responder instructor, hockey fan and volunteer firefighter. Come hang out on the facebook page, where we can share some ideas about how to improve the perception of the Massage Therapy industry.
Jamie Johnston
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