Reading Your Client’s Mind: The Art of the Follow-up Question

When I’m interviewing new massage clients, there’s a trick that I do that makes me seem psychic. It goes a little something like this: They’ll mention that they have headaches, and I’ll ask where. They’ll point to their temples, and I’ll ask if they also have jaw pain/dysfunction. “Yeah, I do! How did you know?”

I’ll give them an enigmatic smile and say, “a magician never reveals his tricks.”

Via Alan Levine, CC BY 2.0
Via Alan Levine, CC BY 2.0

… Not really 🙂 I’ll take the opportunity to let them know about their temporalis muscle, and how jaw problems can refer up into the temples, and vice versa. I’ll emphasize the reciprocal relationship between the two areas, and let them know that I’d like to work with areas related to their pain rather than just concentrating on any one spot. They’re usually pretty enthusiastic about this approach.

So, my mind-reading trick is this: Notice the related areas of the body, and ask follow-up questions relevant to those relationships. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve unearthed more areas that needed work (and that the client had pretty much forgotten about) just by going down that rabbit hole of related pain.

Apart from establishing you as an expert who is well-acquainted with patterns of pain and dysfunction, it gives you an opportunity to educate the client about their own body. The head bone is connected to the neck bone. The heel pain is connected to the calf cramp. The client is able to start seeing their body’s own interrelatedness, making it easier to guide them away from the idea of having a “bad knee” or “bad shoulder” or “bad anything.” By broadening their view of their pain, you can often get permission to work more broadly, all while making the client feel heard and informed.

Here are a few more examples of follow-up questions I ask:

  • If the client has significant shoulder pain, or lack of ROM, I’ll ask about numbness/tingling down the arms.
  • If they mention low back pain, I’ll ask about hip pain.
  • If they’ve got hip pain, I’ll ask about nerve sensations down the legs.
  • If they have foot pain, I’ll ask about calf cramps.
  • I’ll also go in the other direction: If they have calf cramps, how are their feet?

Keep in mind that I try to ask all of these questions without “leading the witness.” If a client doesn’t have that related pain, I’ll try to convey that I had no attachment to that hypothetical problem by saying, “okay, good!” and moving on. Some clients, if given the idea that you want that pain to exist, will think really hard and say, “well, maybe I’ve had some tightness there…” Try to move on efficiently from these dead ends, but give them plenty of time to tell the story of their actual pain. In doing so, you’ll establish a rhythm for your interview, and you’ll let them know that you care more about how they’re feeling than how you expect them to feel.

What follow-up questions help you “strike gold”? How long do your initial interviews tend to be, and how has that changed over your time as a massage therapist? How has that changed your practice? Looking forward to the answers!

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