To get the most out of reading tarot cards requires more than just whipping out the deck whenever, wherever. In this post I cover 10 steps on how to read tarot cards that have helped me to get the clearest, most accurate tarot readings possible. I have developed these 10 steps after many years of my own experience reading tarot plus knowledge gained from other experienced readers. This post is mainly aimed at people new to tarot but if you’ve been reading tarot awhile you may find some interesting nuggets! In this post I refer to people seeking a tarot reading as querents – the traditional term.
Of course, as with all tarot content I post on this blog, take what works for you and leave the rest!
This post is very much a companion piece to my post ‘Reading Tarot for Yourself – 7 Things to Avoid’ which you can read, here. This post does cover some of the same ground as that one but I go into more of what I do to create a great reading experience whether reading tarot for myself or others. Taking both posts together should provide a good primer on how to read tarot cards.
1. Set a time and place for your tarot reading
To really be able to focus on the reading ideally I recommend allocating a time and special place to throw down the cards. A quiet place where you will not be disturbed is great; some people fortunate enough to have the space devote an entire room for just reading tarot. Other people who use tarot as part of their spiritual practice create altars and read tarot there. A particular time when you will not be disturbed is also important and you want to make sure the time is long enough to get what you need from the reading.
Personally, my own readings usually last 20 to 40 minutes or longer depending on the complexity of the issue but you will find your timescale. I tend to do my personal readings early in the morning or late in the evening in the privacy of my room – it’s quiet, I won’t be disturbed and I have the time I need to absorb the message provided by the cards.
What if you are travelling and what to do a quick reading on the train? Or what if you are at work and just want to do a reading during a break? Of course you can read tarot where ever and when ever you like! I’m not saying you can’t but it is not the best way to really reflect on the reading.
Before the current coronavirus pandemic, I would often attend tarot Meetups here in London where I would read cards for others in a really busy pub. I also took my cards into work where I would read for myself and other interested people during lunch and sometimes after work. Those readings were valuable but the distractions and time constraints meant I couldn’t really achieve the focus and time needed to really dig deep into the reading. I reserved my most important questions for when I could give the tarot my undivided attention.
2. Be sure you are emotionally ready for tarot
For a clear, unbiased reading I definitely recommend not reading the tarot for yourself while you are experiencing strong emotions. Reading tarot, particularly for yourself, when you are experiencing strong emotion can skew the message you receive from the cards. If you want to be objective as possible, wait until you are feeling calmer!
Also, if you are feeling tired and you want to do a reading on an important issue, it would be better to delay the reading until you are rested. If you are tired you will not be able to concentrate on the messages the cards provide.
So there you go, i’m writing in a tarot blog about when not to read the tarot!
For more information on how to be objective as possible when reading tarot see my ‘Reading tarot for Yourself’ post linked at the top.
It’s actually easier to read for other people if you are feeling emotional since you focus on the other person’s needs and not your own but it is still a good idea to begin the reading in a calm state. Meditation is a good means of feeling calmer and more focused on the reading ahead.
3. Have a clear question in mind
Have a clear question in mind when you are going to do your own tarot readings. This is important to provide a context for the cards you draw. It is O.K. to ask general questions like ‘What is the energy today?’ but you need to have something in mind. If you don’t have a question and just pull out the cards you won’t be able to relate them to any situation and the messages will be vague and unhelpful. Not very useful!
Sometimes when I read for other people they just ask for a general reading – that’s all they tell me! I explain to them that they will get more out of the reading if they can at least narrow the focus of their question down to a particular area of their life that they are concerned about at the moment. For instance, career or relationships. This isn’t about changing the querent’s question, it’s about providing a reading that will be more helpful to them by providing a better context for the cards.
If you are just starting out reading for other people don’t be afraid to gently help them narrow the focus of their questions. They will get more out of the reading and the reading will be much easier for you too!
For more on which kinds of tarot questions are most helpful – and which to avoid – see the post ‘What Tarot Questions Can You Ask?‘ which you can read here.
4. Make sure the reading space is private and comfortable
Privacy is really important when reading the tarot for someone else. I find that people really open up during a tarot reading divulging all sorts of personal issues and feelings they wouldn’t tell anyone else. In essence you almost become a counsellor. They confide in you and you have an obligation to respect that trust and make sure that confidentiality is maintained. A private, comfortable space will relax your querent and encourage them to open up.
As I mentioned previously in point 1, I used to do readings for others in pubs. Even then, though, I would ensure we had a table to ourselves and that we could not be overheard easily.
If you are reading for someone online or even over the phone, this privacy is still important. Make sure you will not be disturbed during the reading. Pets excepted! And young children in an emergency!
5. Ask Questions
Related to some of the earlier points, when you are reading the tarot for someone else, don’t be afraid to ask them questions! Some people seem to think that tarot readers are also psychic mind readers and don’t need to provide any information. Unfortunately, like most people, I am not a psychic mind reader and information is crucial for any productive and meaningful tarot reading.
As well as asking your querents to, at the very least, narrow the focus of their question to a particular area of their lives, also ask them questions during the reading. Practical, useful, tarot reading is almost more of a conversation and counselling session than an exercise in psychic ability.
Asking people questions during the tarot reading is not cheating, it will help you to understand the messages the cards are giving you. You should explain to the querent that you will be asking them questions during the reading and this is to help them get the most out of the reading.
6. Choose your Tarot deck
If you are fortunate enough to own more than one tarot deck you have the luxury of choosing the appropriate deck for the reading. Some people have particular decks they like to use for particular questions. Other readers have favourite decks for use at particular times of the year. For instance, some decks work well during the spring as they have that new growth energy; other, darker, decks may be more appropriate for shadow work or for readings during the autumn (Fall).
If you have several decks and you are reading for someone else perhaps give the querent the choice of what deck they would like you to use; it gives them a greater investment in the reading if you use a deck they like.
Personally, I do choose the deck I want to use based on the question. Certain decks have an atmosphere or vibe that resonates particulary well with certain questions. The Bianco Nero tarot pictured above is a deck I favour when I want a clear, no nonsense reading due to the starkness of the black and white imagery.
However, if you only have one or two decks then don’t worry! Your readings are not going to be any less effective because you don’t have a library of decks to choose from. If you do read for other people I personally recommend having a deck just for yourself and one for reading for others. A public deck is likely to get grubby and damaged and you may want to keep a pristine one for yourself. Also, if your favourite deck happens to be expensive and/or out of print you probably don’t want that deck to get ruined.
7. Shuffle and cut the deck
Shuffling the tarot deck is vitally important. If you believe that a deck can absorb the energies of the person using it then getting the querent to shuffle it will mean the deck absorbs their energy. This means the deck will be more attuned to the querent resulting in a more focused, accurate reading. Even if you don’t believe in this, a good shuffle will randomise the deck and prevent the previous reading from contaminating the current one.
See my post titled ‘How to shuffle a tarot deck‘, which you can find here, to discover my technique for shuffling a tarot deck regardless of the size or thickness of the cards – riffle shuffling is not required!
Some tarot readers don’t like the querent to shuffle the deck, preferring to do that that themselves. But the querent can still cut the deck.
Cutting the deck is very important. For me, this is really the point where the energies of the person – their psychic state – may have an influence on the reading. The traditional method is to use your left hand and cut the deck twice to create 3 piles before then recombining the piles into one deck. There are several reasons why the left hand is used – my favourite is that this is the hand closest to the heart and so allows the person’s emotions to affect the reading.
If this helps you get into the mental state necessary for the reading then follow this traditional method. You don’t have to of course – so long as you cut the deck using some other method. For me, I do cut the deck with my left hand; it’s part of the ritual involved in tarot reading useful in that it helps mentally prepare me for the reading ahead.
Of course, at the time of writing this post, we are still in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. If you are, by some chance, managing to read safely for other people face-to-face or online, how can you get the person you are reading for to safely cut the deck? Answer – use Pick a Pile:
Popular on YouTube tarot channels, the pick a pile reading enables the querent to effectively ‘cut the deck’ and have an influence on the reading. You simply give them the choice of which pile they want to use based on intuition and then do the reading only using the cards in that pile. Not as good as physically cutting the deck themselves but it’s a pretty good alternative.
8. Make note of everything that happens
This is a really, really important part of any tarot reading. What do I mean by noting everything that happens? Exactly that.
From the time you sit down and prepare yourself for the reading – through shuffling the cards; laying them out; and interpreting the reading – make a mental note of anything that occurs. This can be sounds during the reading like a creaking house; cars beeping outside; pigeons landing on your window sill. Any sensations you might experience like a twinge of pain that suddenly occurs; perhaps a sudden itch. You get the idea.
Particularly important, make a note of any cards that fall out of the deck while shuffling – commonly known as ‘Jumpers’. Even if these cards don’t actually appear in the reading they may have some relevance you should consider. If they do appear in the reading pay special attention to them because there is definitely something you need to know about the message that card has.
Why do I talk about noting what happens during a reading? As it happens, through personal experience both related and unrelated to tarot, I have come to believe in the concept of synchronicity.
Synchronicity is a term coined by the Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung. He used it to describe observed events occurring at a particular time which appear to be meaningfully interdependent to the observer but which do not have any causal link. A classic example of this is where you are thinking about someone you haven’t seen for a long time and then that person calls you. This is meaningful to you but other than just having thought about that person there is nothing else to have caused these two events to happen together.
Synchronicity has been claimed to be nothing more than coincidence or confirmation bias where a person merely chooses the information that fits their beliefs.
With regard to tarot, I have gradually come to believe in the concept of synchronicity over many years. I’m aware of confirmation bias but, rationally speaking, I don’t believe that explains many instances where you draw the exact card that explains the situation. Or when the same card appears in the same position in the spread over and over again.
Quantum Physics May Explain Synchronicity
How to explain synchronicity? Well, quantum physics teaches us that reality doesn’t work the way we think it does. Quantum physics experiments have demonstrated that objects can instantly connect and influence each other over huge distances – with no causal link. Theoretical quantum mechanics hypothesises that the unconscious can influence the conscious world. I personally would like to believe that this is part of the answer as to why the tarot works – your psychic state can actually influence the reading!
Will we ever prove this is true? Who knows. But keep your eyes peeled and ears straining while doing a tarot reading.
9. Reading the Tarot cards
A very important aspect of knowing how to read tarot cards is using a tarot spread. Tarot spreads will help you get the most accurate and useful answers. A tarot spread consists of different positions, each one with a different meaning, in which you place the cards. You then read the card in the context of that position and then bring the whole reading together.
Ideally, you should know a selection of different spreads to cover a range of possible questions. There are many sources, both books and online, where you can find spreads. There are spreads for most of the popular questions, including general spreads. Even better, if you feel confident, you can create a custom spread tailored to exactly answer the question to be asked. It’s not difficult.
Here’s a brief example of creating your own spread to answer a specific question.
How To Create Your Own Tarot Spread
I want to keep things pretty light and cheerful so we’ll create a spread to answer a frivolous question.
The question is: What should I feed my cat this evening?
If you own a cat – as I do – you will know that this can be a challenging exercise because cats are connoisseurs when it comes to food!
The way to create a custom tarot spread is to break the question down into all the aspects you want to know. These aspects then become the positions in the spread.
So, for instance we might want to know the following:
What do I need to know about feeding my cat Tuna (Option A)?
What do I need to know about feeding my cat Salmon (Option B)?
What does my cat feel about Option A (based on previous experience)?
What does my cat feel about Option B? (based on previous experience)?
This creates a 5 card spread where you can essentially think about what your cat might like based on previous experience with some general advice to help guide you.
That was a fun little example but the general idea can be applied to any question: think about all the aspects of the question you feel are important and include a position for overall advice or action to take. These become the positions in your spread.
Try practising this: Carry a little notebook and a pen or pencil with you and when you have a question you want to ask the tarot, think about it, break it down into all the aspects you want to know and create your own spread.
Reading The Tarot Spread
The various methods of actually reading all the cards is a topic too huge for this post alone but here are some pointers.
Some tarot readers like to get an overview of the whole spread first noting how many major arcana cards are present and whether there are a lot of any particular suit present. This will help determine the energies involved in the reading.
For instance, many major arcana cards indicates that there are major forces at work in this question and you may not have much control over how the situation develops. If there are many pentacles or coins present this indicates that the energies mainly involve work, money, health or other material concerns.
Having done the overview, the readers will then pay attention to the individual cards before tying the whole reading together to create a story, or summary, of the reading.
Of course, other readers may do things the other way around; giving individual cards attention before moving to an overview of the reading.
Personally, I use the first approach – I look at the big picture and then narrow the focus down to the separate cards. Do whatever works best for you including ignoring all of this if that works for you!
When talking about how to read tarot cards, the ability to connect the cards in the spread is important to create a solid summary, or story, of the overall reading. Whatever you do, don’t just read each card in the spread in isolation and just leave the reading there – the reading will be disjointed and confusing! Developing your intuition in tarot reading is crucial here.
For more on developing your tarot intuition and an easy method to read tarot intuitively, see the posts ‘How To Do An Intuitive Tarot Reading‘ which can be found here and ‘Starting With Tarot: A Guide For The Beginner‘ here.
10. Finish the reading
Once you have finished the reading I strongly recommend making a note of the reading in a journal so you can reference the reading again in the future; particularly valuable if the reading was very important.
If you’re like me, you tend to forget readings over time so a tarot journal is actually really valuable. See my post ‘Reading Tarot For Yourself – 7 Things To Avoid‘, which you can read here, for more on tarot journaling.
If you are reading for someone else online or over the phone make sure they are happy with the reading and if the reading has answered their question. I have found that you need to ask this as some people will remain quiet but still aren’t sure about certain aspects of the reading. By asking them you give them the opportunity to speak up.
If you are reading for someone else it is important to maintain boundaries, especially if you are reading tarot professionally. You are not beholden to your querent, you are providing them a service. And the service ends when the particular reading does!
I hope this post on how to read tarot cards is helpful, it’s certainly helped me achieve focused, accurate tarot readings over the years.