All massage therapists have, at some point in their careers, had to deal with an awkward or uncomfortable situation with a client. We gathered some stories from MTs who have expertly handled an awkward moment. Now, these stories aren’t meant to embarrass clients, but rather to learn from our peers how to calmly and professionally handle moments like these.

1. Personal medical issues

This story from Anastasia, owner/massage therapist, was one that we hadn’t heard before. We’re wondering if any other MTs out there have treated a patient with this condition, and how you handled it if it ever came up in a session?

“I have a client who is a young adult and came to me with glute pain. I did all the right protocols and around the third visit he asked if I could help with ED (erectile dysfunction). He was embarrassed and I was taken back a little. I said … I will research it. I took out my medical massage book and showed him exactly what I was going to work on and how it would help. He felt more at ease and after that visit his glute pain and ED was gone. Just talking a client through what you are going to do and showing a visual aid if able to can make a awkward moment disappear!

2. Body noises

Massage therapist Kathryn puts her clients at ease by saying “It’s just harmless laughing gas.”

Roseann, a massage therapist and educator, says this: “When a client farts, makes belly sounds, coughs, I say, hey, that’s the parasympathetic nervous system working. That means what I’m doing is working. That’s good!”

Many of the massage therapists we talked to shared that a light-hearted humorous response usually works well for them.

3. Hairy legs

Roseann also has this bit of advice for her female clients who feel awkward about not shaving: “Women apologize for hairy legs. I might make a joke: ‘What! I can’t work on you! Off my table now!’ and they laugh. Or, I say, ‘You know, male clients never apologize for hairy legs. Why should you?'”

Robert, an LMT, says this is a common embarrassment among his female clients, but it doesn’t bother him at all! “When women apologize for not shaving, I thank them … it exfoliates and stimulates my hands. I really do like it.”

4. “Let’s talk about the penis”

Shama, a Thai Massage therapist who lives in Thailand, shares this story that is surely familiar to many massage therapists, but still can be awkward for both client and practitioner:

“One of the more common awkward issues is the male involuntary erection during the session. I have always found that it is best to address this head on. I remember working on a male client, and there was movement in his genital area. He was terribly embarrassed and started to apologize and could obviously not relax into the session.

I just told him that his genital was only doing exactly what it was designed to do, namely fill with blood in certain situations, and they are not all sexually related. I told him that millions of men wake up in the morning with an erection without any sensual feelings at all, that a full bladder can cause a rather uncomfortable penile expansion, and that the physical movements in Thai Massage can cause involuntary partial erections as well, and that this was nothing to worry about.

He was so relieved and could finally relax and enjoy the session after he realized that I wasn’t thinking anything or interpreting this movement in any way.

When I teach Thai Massage, at one point in the training I say: “Let’s talk about the penis”. First there is shocked and embarrassed silence among the students. But when I explain to them what I explained to my client above, and they understand that this is something they WILL encounter in their profession, and that it is much better to have a clear understanding than to skirt around the issue, the students appreciate the lesson.

I have also found that many women are not so clear about the fact that a male erection is not an exclusive sexual function. Once they really understand this, all the embarrassment about this issue is gone.

And just to reiterate: I am talking about INVOLUNTARY erections, not about promiscuous behavior which is on a totally different page.”

5. Emotional Involvement

This story comes from Melissa, an experienced massage therapist who shared an experience she had with a client who developed feelings for her. She handled the situation very professionally and was even able to repair the client/therapist relationship after some time passed.

“I’ve been in practice for 14 years, and only had one ‘incident.’ I’ve never been more proud of myself in how I handled it, but it shocked me well after the session was over. Looking back, I don’t know where that inner strength came from to have so much compassion for his feelings and FIRM for mine at the same time.

I had a client who came in regularly on a monthly basis. Working together after almost a year he had confessed a crush on me and asked if he could take me out to dinner. (I had just asked him to turn over, I knew we had 30 minutes left in our session and the flashing lights in my head were saying WTF, you have a wife and kids! ) I very quickly and calmly responded that I was flattered HOWEVER, if his personal feelings get in the way our professional therapeutic massage therapist and client relationship, I have to ask him to find a new therapist! He immediately apologized knowing that I wasn’t going to stand for that conversation to go any further in my office. He left apologizing and stunned. He surprisingly came back the next month. I reminded him that this is a safe, professional and therapeutic space. Then asked what he wanted to focus on for this particular session.(No doubt the longest session I’ve ever had in my 14 years of service.) The session went fine and when it came time to pay he admitted maybe it wasn’t best to continue to see me professionally, left a great tip and I didn’t see him for several years.

It’s been seven years, I admit I cringed when I saw his daughter come into the office and purchase a gift certificate for him. (Clearly I wasn’t about to discuss past details and I didn’t know if he even knew about the daughter coming in, so I let her purchase the gift certificate, knowing that I’d probably get a call from him and send a reimbursement check.)

He apologized to the moon and back for his past behavior. He said that he respected me more on a professional level for how I handled it and being nonjudgmental in an awkward situation.
I’m happy to report that over the past year he and his wife come back once a month with no further incident.”

Do you have any stories of awkward moments with clients that you’re proud of the way you handled the situation, or one where you wish you had responded differently? Share with us in the comments, we’d love to hear your experiences!

[Originally published June 16, 2014 on the Massamio site.]