Being Able to Say "No"

For massage therapists especially, one very difficult challenge seems to be the ability to say “no” to a given situation if we need to. We are such giving people that it can be extremely difficult for us to tell anyone that we cannot accommodate their request. Many of us would almost rather not practice than have to do that, but the unfortunate reality is that we have to draw boundaries in and around various parts of our lives and keep those boundaries intact. Otherwise, we risk overextending ourselves and burning out. There are many situations that may call for a therapist to say “no.” The following are some common potential situations therapists may run into as well as ways to help therapists find out if they are in such situations and how best to say “no” while still being professional.

When Injury Becomes An Issue

What if you have a client that you don’t mind working on, but whose special accommodations require you to perform massage in such a way that you risk injuring yourself? I had this happen with a client several months ago. He had come in usually once a week for 90-minute or two-hour sessions and requested Swedish work strictly on his legs and glutes, which were very tight because his work required that he drove great distances on a regular basis. I accommodated him as best I could, but as the weeks came and went, I realized that I was starting to gain repetitive strain from having a two-hour session that worked strictly on the legs. There is not a lot of variety when working on the legs, as there is only so much that a therapist can do to work them out. I tried to change things up a bit by offering him a hot stone upgrade for a slightly increased price, and it seemed to help at first, but eventually the repetitive strain started to show again.

What was I to do? This client was a pretty faithful regular who always tipped well and was satisfied with my work, but I simply couldn’t continue risking the health of my career for the rest of my clients. I had two choices. I could offer to continue to work on his legs for shorter periods of time (although any length of time past thirty minutes done solely on the legs is nearly as challenging as a two-hour session). However, I knew that part of the reason that he came was to relax for a couple of hours on my table. I doubted he would want a shorter session time, especially since he was always asking me if I could add just thirty minutes more to his sessions whenever he came in for his appointments. So, I did the only other thing that I could do. I told him that I was no longer able to see him as a client, since working as I had been for such lengths of time on his legs was causing potential for injury if I didn’t listen to my body and acknowledge what it was telling me. Fortunately, he completely understood and wished me the best, and we parted ways. Maybe I could have found some other middle ground, but I wanted him to be happy with the work he was receiving as well, and it seemed like a better idea to have him go find someone else who might be better able to accommodate his requests. In the long run, it was the best decision for both of us, though it was certainly a hard one to make at the time.

When Income Becomes An Issue

As another hypothetical situation, what if you have a client who wants to come see you on a regular basis, say weekly, but they cannot afford to pay your regular rate every week or purchase the package deals you offer that give a modest discount in return for paying up-front? As therapists, it can be very tempting to just tell people that they can pay whatever they can afford and go from there. However, by doing so, we end up consistently undervaluing our work and potentially jeopardizing our income. Now, most of us aren’t in the business just to make money, but the fact remains that we do have to earn it in order to pay our bills and keep practicing. If too many clients don’t pay the amount that we have set for our services, we end up in a lurch, potentially not being able to pay our bills because we haven’t made enough in a month or having to work more than is healthy in order to make sure that we have made enough money. Either situation is negative and not a place where we want to be.

If such a situation with a client occurs, you can do your best to accommodate the person within reason. For instance, if you normally charge $75 per session, you could offer to work within their budget by offering them $55 per session for five sessions if they pay up front. Or, if they don’t want to pay up front, try to agree upon a reasonable price, maybe $60, that they feel they can afford and that they can pay you every time they see you. If they usually tip you for your services, you can tell them that a tip is not necessary, since you are already charging the amount you feel the service is worth (at least you should be doing so). If they don’t have to worry about a tip every time, this may help them feel that they can better afford your services for the rate that you charge or for a slightly discounted rate. Another alternative is encouraging them to come see you slightly less frequently, such as every other week instead of every week.

It is even easier to help clients afford your services if you offer loyalty rewards or once-a-month discounts. This helps them out financially and also helps keep your business flowing by encouraging them to come back regularly. At the end of the day, however, you have to make sure that you are being paid what you are worth. If a client is offering a rate that fits their budget but is simply too low for your services, you have to say no and either help them find another therapist who charges less and can still give them the kind of massage they need, or try to work with them in other ways to make your services affordable enough for them. Remember, if you can’t afford to continue giving massages, whether because your income is not enough to pay your bills or because you are starting to injure yourself from overworking, then you are going to be a disservice to all your clients instead of just the one.

When Respect Becomes An Issue

What about a client who doesn’t respect your time? I had a colleague once who was the sweetest therapist ever, but she didn’t say “no” to a client who consistently disrespected her time. Whether it was always running an hour (or two) late for her appointments and then hoping to get the full service time, or arriving extremely early when the therapist wasn’t yet expecting her, the client always made my colleague feel frazzled and irritated. In fact, when my colleague was going out of town for a week and asked if I wanted this same client while she was gone, I didn’t hesitate to tell her “No way!” Eventually, the client moved to a different state, much to everyone in the spa’s relief, but it would have been so much better for both the client and my colleague if she had just set her boundaries firmly for the client and told her that she would only continue to be a client if she would start respecting the therapist’s time.

Handling Your Boundaries Professionally

There are countless other situations in which a therapist may have to say “no” and keep their boundaries – a client who insists that they can only come in during your child’s most important game of the season, another therapist who asks you to take on their three clients for the day in addition to the four you already have booked because they are sick or can’t otherwise make it in, a family member who expects that you should give them your services for free even though you don’t make it a practice to give free massages to anyone – these are just a few more examples of things that might come up and that therapists have to deal with.

The first thing you should do in a situation where you think you might have to say “no” is try to find a solution that doesn’t involve saying “no” but doesn’t involve giving an unconditional “yes” either. As in the situations above, other possibilities can be tried first to see if it provides an adequate solution to the problem that satisfies everyone involved. If no such solution can be found, however, and the situation has a potential to cause or is causing stress or harm to the therapist, then it is time to say “no” and move on. Though it may be difficult to do in the moment, in the long run it will keep you healthier and happier.