It’s every novice reader’s nightmare. You’ve got a Tarot deck, and you’re still in the early stages of reading card meanings out of the LWB, but you’ve done several readings for yourself and you want to branch out. You convince your sister-in-law to let you read for her, because hey, she’s kind of spiritual. She asks you for a reading about the promotion she’s coming up for at work, and you shuffle the deck and lay out a few cards.
Everything is fine. Until you see that the cards you’ve drawn have absolutely nothing to do with work.
Maybe you get a handful of cards that look like they’re talking about her marriage, or her kids, or her health. But regardless, you’re looking at the neat little Celtic Cross you’ve laid out for yourself, and it just doesn’t look like it’s answering the question you asked. Not that it’s giving you an answer you (or your sister-in-law) won’t like. Just… The cards are telling a story about something completely different. Or they don’t even look like they’re telling a story at all.
What do you do?
First things first: Don’t panic. This happens all the time, and it gets easier and easier to deal with the more time you spend reading. For one thing, the more familiar you are with the cards, the easier it is to pick out themes that pertain to a querent’s situation, even if those themes aren’t immediately apparent. Sure, your LWB says the Two of Cups is about love and romantic partnership, but if it pops up in the context of a work reading, it could just as easily signify a close friendship with a colleague. The Ten of Pentacles speaks to ideas of family, homestead, and inheritance, but in the context of a work reading, it becomes a different kind of windfall—one that has nothing to do with family. Cards change meaning depending on context.
One thing I liked to do when I was first learning to read Tarot was to practice providing completely different interpretations that could be given for the same set of cards. Write several practice questions on slips of paper (Client A asks if her husband is cheating on her, Client B asks if she should call to check in on her sister, Client C wants a forecast for the month ahead) and put them all in a hat. Then, lay out a spread of cards. Pick at least two different questions from the hat, and read for both questions using the same set of cards. If you’ve drawn the Star, the Queen of Cups, and the Eight of Wands, how would you interpret those cards for Client A? And how would that interpretation change if the question you’d asked had been Client B’s or Client C’s? This exercise is a fantastic way to teach yourself the nuance in the cards, and to avoid falling into the rut of thinking that Cups always mean love or Pentacles always mean money.
If you’re in an actual, real-time reading for someone else and the cards don’t seem to connect, the most important thing is just to start talking. Don’t sit paralyzed with your mouth agape while you try to figure out what to say. Start by looking at each card and explaining the general themes associated with it. Then, it’s perfectly acceptable to say, “It’s not immediately apparent how this connects to your question, but let’s look at all of the cards and see how they tie together”. You may find that once you start looking at the big picture, a story comes to the fore.
It’s also legitimate to ask your client for feedback. “This card normally means XYZ, and it doesn’t often turn up in readings about this subject. How might this theme connect to your situation?” Doing this allows your client to provide clarifying contextual information that might help the cards make sense. Sometimes—particularly when you’re just starting out—the cards you turn up really do resonate with your client, but you’re just lacking the information that would let you make that connection. Don’t be afraid to let your client tell you how the cards line up with the question she asked.
And as a final point: Sometimes, if you really think the reading is about something else, you can just say that. “I know you asked about work, but it really looks like the cards are talking about something else. Is your work situation being influenced by something in your love life? Because if so, that might be the more pressing thing for us to talk about today.”
You don’t want to do this too often, and (I’d say) only with clients you already know. It can come off patronizing, as a sort of “Oh, you didn’t really mean to ask about that; I know what you need to hear better than you do”. And people can (understandably) bristle at being talked to that way. Plus, things are different if you’re being paid. If someone gives you $50 for a reading about work, well, they’ve paid for a specific service, and it might not be your place to tell them that you’re going to give them a different service instead. Some clients might be amenable to this, but many will not. Saying “I think this reading should be about something else” can be the right move sometimes, but it does require a great deal of tact, and generally I’d recommend it as a last resort.
Like any other skill, Tarot takes practice. Figuring out what the cards mean is, without a doubt, the hardest part of Tarot reading, and that can be even more difficult when the cards look like they’re saying one thing even though you know you’re supposed to be talking about another. Nevertheless, Tarot—like everything else—gets easier the more you do it. Hopefully these tips are a helpful starting point for anyone who’s struggled (or who fears they might struggle in the future) with this problem.