Unlike visits to most physicians, bodywork sessions involve extended one-on-one time between the client and practitioner. More often than not, friendly chitchat surfaces during a massage. This banter can help people relax, build trust and deepen a therapeutic relationship. However, the gossip occurring within a massage practice’s walls can easily cross the line of professional ethics. In order to avoid such unethical conduct, massage therapists must be acutely aware of the impact their words can have.
An integral part of our culture, the gossip industry is everywhere – in magazines, on the radio, television and on the Internet. Gossip is not new; the Oxford English Dictionary traces the word back to 1014. The etymology of the word comes from god-sip, a godparent of one child referring to a close friendship. Thus, gossip refers to things one would only say among close friends. In some cases, bodyworkers may feel as comfortable with their clients as they do with their own friends. Regardless of the ease with which a practitioner may have with his or her clients, maintaining a professional demeanor is crucial to building a successful practice.
Defined by Webster as the study of standards of conduct and moral judgment, ethics is a system or code of morals of a particular person, religion, group, profession, etc. According to the National Certification Board for Therapeutic Massage & Bodywork (NCBTMB) Code of Ethics:
“Massage and bodywork therapists shall act in a manner that justifies public trust and confidence, enhances the reputation of the profession, and safeguards the interest of individual clients.”
In specific regard to the potential unprofessionalism of gossip, the NCBTMB’s code of ethics includes the following three statements:
- Clause VII – Massage therapists shall conduct their business and professional activities with honesty and integrity, and respect the inherent worth of all persons.
- Clause VIII – Massage therapists shall refuse to unjustly discriminate against clients or health professionals.
- Clause IX – Massage therapists shall safeguard the confidentiality of all client information, unless disclosure is requested by the client in writing, is medically necessary, required by law or necessary for the protection of the public.
Under Standard I – Professionalism, the NCBTMB’s Standards of Practice include the following sub-articles that could be forgotten when gossiping:
- Respect the traditions and practices of other professionals and foster collegial relationships.
- Do not falsely impugn the reputation of any colleague.
Dangers of Gossip
Speaking candidly with clients can jeopardize one’s professional ethics in several ways:
- Confidentiality – A client’s information, both written and verbal, belongs to the client. Revealing information about a client violates privacy; whatever is shared within a session is intended to stay there. A client’s confidentiality assures that conversations occurring during a session are only shared with others if it does not violate the client’s privacy rights and is for a medical or legal purpose. If a therapist gossips about someone else during a massage, the recipient is likely to wonder if his or her stories will eventually land on another’s ears.
- Mutual Respect – It is unethical to imply that your skill level or method of therapy is superior to either another practitioner’s or another kind of bodywork. We all have our own beliefs and preferences, but different methods undoubtedly resonate with different people. Chatting openly with clients about your skepticism of aromatherapy or chiropractic or orthopedic surgery can easily backfire. When expressing your qualms about any institution, you may be unaware of your client’s loyalty to that which you are suspicious of.
- Reputation – Careless gossip can damage an innocent person’s reputation and affect their livelihood. Aside from being unkind and unethical, it can open you to slander suits from the accused. Making critical remarks about a practitioner your client is seeing or has seen, questions that practitioner’s competence and your client’s judgment. If a client speaks negatively about another practitioner, a therapist must stay objective. Nina McIntosh, author of The Educated Heart suggests,
“Either remain silent or make a comment related to the client’s feelings such as ‘It sounds as if it was an uncomfortable experience for you.’ You might also ask the client if he or she thinks his or her feelings about the previous practitioner would interfere with the person’s ability to enjoy your work. If so, you can suggest that he or she find a way to get closure with the other practitioner. You can say, ‘I can’t comment about another practitioner’s work, but I see that you are still upset and it might be useful to both you and the practitioner if you would write or call him or her and let the person know why you were dissatisfied.'”
The Exception to Silence
While casual gossip with clients or other practitioners violates professional ethics, there are times when it is appropriate to break your silence. If you believe that another therapist has behaved unethically or illegally, there are various avenues to pursue:
- The NCBTMB has an ethics committee to judge complaints about unethical behavior.
- In states with licensure, there are boards to receive complaints.
- For illegal actions, the judicial system can guide you through the law.
When a therapist believes a wrong has been done, they have the choice of reporting or not reporting it to the appropriate authority. Since it offers the accused no opportunity to mount a defense, a healthcare provider’s code of ethics prohibits using rumor and gossip as an outlet.
It is human nature to use dialogue for connecting with other people. The intimate nature of bodywork further invites informal chitchat. To make sure your discussions do not fall into the gossip category, below are four tests your words should pass:
- Be reasonably sure that the information you communicate is accurate.
- Consider that what you say, even if true, could cause harm. To make this determination, think of how you would feel if someone said the same thing about you.
- Ask yourself if you would repeat your sentiment about someone to his or her face.
- Think of how comfortable you would be to see your comments published in the local paper with attribution.
Working with clients all day long can be stressful; many massage therapists must vent after a particularly frustrating day. However, being a professional mandates such venting stay within ethical boundaries. Complaining to a teacher, mentor or consultant also bound by confidentiality can be a valuable part of a bodyworker’s support system. Within an ethical framework, difficult experiences can strengthen skills rather than undermine professionalism.
Maintaining client confidentiality, respecting others and thinking about potential reputation blunders help practitioners conduct themselves appropriately. By being cognizant of the impact words can have, massage therapists can make sure their conversations with clients steer clear of the pitfalls of gossip.