Massage Today
Massage Today dotted line
dotted line

dotted line
Share |
  Forward PDF Version  

Let's Talk About...

By Ben Benjamin, PhD

About the Columnist
Other Articles

Just the Facts: Opinion vs. Data in the Therapeutic Relationship

In today's society, people experiencing pain or discomfort can look to countless different sources for help and advice. Often, when clients come to us, they've already received a lot of information from physicians, chiropractors, acupuncturists, or other practitioners — not to mention their friends, the Internet, and the evening news. Much of this information comes in the form of opinions, the personal viewpoints of specific individuals. Invariably, different individuals have different viewpoints, so a client who consults several sources is likely to hear several conflicting opinions.

Here are just a couple of examples:

  1. Myofascial treatment will relieve your pain within six months.
  2. The only thing that will help you is surgery.
  3. You should try this dietary supplement; it does wonders for arthritis.
  4. All you need is some good physical therapy.

No wonder so many people get confused and frustrated when exploring their health care options. How can they know which source to believe? Should they trust the person they like the most? The one who has the most letters after their name? Or the one who seems most confident? There's no easy answer. And how can we, as massage therapists, share what we know without becoming just another voice in a cacophony of opinions?

One solution is to give fewer opinions and more data. In contrast to opinions, pieces of data (i.e. facts) are either true or false. For example, if I say, "I treated Mr. Burke every week for six months," that's a data-based statement. Either I treated Mr. Burke for that period of time or I didn't. However, if I say, "Those treatments helped him a lot." Or, "He should have kept coming for a little while longer," I'm giving an opinion. Someone else might agree or disagree with my opinions, but they are neither accurate nor inaccurate. Compare this with data-based statements about the client's progress: "Mr. Burke reported that his back pain decreased from a level 10 to a level three over a six-month period. If he continued improving at the same rate, he would have been pain-free within another three months of treatment."

opinion vs. data - Copyright – Stock Photo / Register Mark Not all data pertains to observable events in the outside world. Information about a person that is known only to that person also counts as data. If I say, "I'm tired," or "I'm frustrated," or "I just love Swiss cheese," those statements can't be verified by anyone else, but they are still either true or false (either I love Swiss cheese or I don't).

You can think of opinions as giving personal information, as well. For example, the opinion, "Kate is a fantastic therapist," can be rephrased as, "I think Kate is a fantastic therapist." Notice that this is a statement about the speaker — what's on the speaker's mind, what the speaker thinks — and not about Kate. No matter what Kate's work is like, it can still be either true or false that the speaker thinks she's fantastic.

Realizing that our opinions say something about us, not about the outside world, can save us a lot of frustration. If I want someone else to understand why I think Kate is a good therapist, I need to give information about her and her work, not just about me. For example, I could say, "Kate has ten years of experience practicing orthopedic massage. I have referred six clients to her in the last year, and five of them reported complete relief from their pain. With the fifth client, Kate realized her form of treatment would not be effective, so she referred him to an osteopath." The same is true when I'm discussing anything else I think is great, or not so great, such as various treatment options or lifestyle choices that my clients are considering.

It's certainly fine to tell clients our opinions, but it's important to back them up with data. This is especially true when our clients are facing major decisions about their health (e.g., deciding whether to begin a long-term treatment program, to have surgery, or to make radical lifestyle changes). Data is empowering. When we give clients the facts about relevant research findings, our own past experiences, and the results of our assessment procedures, they may find this data convincing or they may not. Either way, we're giving them the chance to make up their own minds about what's best for them based on factual information.

Consider These Examples

Opinion: You need to do these exercises every day.

Data: I've worked with dozens of clients with this sort of injury. In my experience, when people do this exercise every day, they heal up to 40% faster, but when they miss one or two days a week their rate of healing remains unaffected.

Opinion: In addition to easing your neck pain, these treatments will improve your circulation dramatically.

Data: In my evaluation, I found that your level of muscle tension was above average throughout your upper body, and chronic tension tends to impair circulation. Dozens of research studies have shown that this type of massage helps to reduce muscle tension and improve circulation.

Opinion: The real cause of your neck pain is your stressful job.

Data: I've noticed that whenever you come here on the weekend or during a vacation week, you report having much less neck pain.

In each case, data provides a deeper, more solid foundation for mutual understanding. All of these examples involve a therapist giving information to clients, but the same is also true for the information clients bring in. When clients tell you their opinions or opinions they've heard from someone else, encourage them to share data with you. You might ask, "Why do you think that?" or "How did he/she come to that conclusion?" Even if you strongly disagree with the opinion, try to be genuinely curious about the data underlying it. Remember that the client has information you don't have. You may be less inclined to ask for data when you hear opinions you like or agree with — e.g., "These treatments are so helpful" — but facts are useful at those times, too. Whenever clients tell me that their condition is improving, I say, "Prove it to me. Tell me what's different now."

In any situation where it's important to separate what you know from what you think, it's to your advantage to bring data into the conversation. Both you and your clients will experience the benefits of increased clarity and understanding.

dotted line