There are many different styles of tarot reading. Some readers adhere closely to “book meanings” for the cards, others let their intuition have free reign. Some use metaphysical systems relating tarot to qabalah, astrology, or numerology, while others rely more on the imagery of the cards. Some readers encourage the querent to figure out the message of the cards on their own, others simply present their own interpretation. It seems like there are an enormous number of options, each with its proponents and detractors.
When I teach tarot, I help make sense of this by suggesting that every tarot reading is a conversation with three participants: the reader, the querent, and the cards. (If you read for yourself, you take on the role of both reader and querent.)
The reader presumably has some talents, skills, and experience that makes them good at drawing messages from the cards. Perhaps the reader is naturally psychic or intuitive, or perhaps they just have long study of spiritual and psychological ideas behind them. For whatever reason, a good reader is adept at “getting” the querent’s questions and needs, and discerning and relaying pertinent insights. I have seen psychic tarot readers who basically do it all themselves; the cards are just a prop, and the querent, after having posed the initial question, simply sits and listens to the pronouncements the reader makes. In this case, it is essentially just the reader’s voice that is heard in the conversation.
The querent (the person who comes with a question for the cards) naturally understands the nuances of their own situation, and has that background information to contribute. Furthermore, spiritual growth and positive change do not happen without the active participation of the person who seeks them. When the querent “unlocks” the meaning of the cards for themselves, they have a sense of ownership of the process and a sense of personal discovery. This can be extremely important in the long run, as the querent tries to put the message of the cards to use. There is a style of reading I call facilitative reading, where the reader does not interpret the cards at all, but merely asks the querent probing questions and allows them to find their own answers.
The cards bear their own symbolism, and carry the historical traditions wrapped around those symbols. The Magician card, for example, has accumulated a certain cluster of meanings over the centuries: he is the magus, manifesting change through his own consciousness; he is the charlatan or con artist; he is the mask of personal ego; the will; the first doorkeeper of the mysteries. The cards (and the meanings ascribed to them by tradition or the deck designer) provide an outside voice in the conversation, and often a surprising one. A reading that relies solely on the cards and their traditional meanings is what one might get from a computer programmed with book meanings. Some readers prefer to stick closely to the cards, so as to not introduce their own personal impressions into the mix.
Each of these voices, I believe, has its own strengths and its own limitations. Some readers may gravitate toward one of the extremes (focusing on one voice to the exclusion of others). In my experience, most readers simply “lean” toward one of the three poles, but end up using a mix of all three, to some degree.
I prefer what I call “collaborative reading”, where I consciously work to keep all three voices engaged in the conversation. If it seems to be turning into me talking about the cards, I pause and ask the querent some leading questions, and get them more involved in the process. If the traditional meanings and the querent’s reactions seem to have left things stalled, I will interject some of my own intuitive insights. And, if it starts to seem more like a counseling session than a card reading, I will pull back to the cards themselves and their established meanings, to help interject some objectivity and outside information.
What is the best way? I don’t think there’s a one-size-fits all answer. It depends on the reader’s personality and background, as well as the querent’s willingness to engage the cards independently of the reader. But it’s nice to have options, and sometimes remembering the “three voices” of the tarot conversation can open up those options during a reading.