Garbage In, Garbage Out: Client Engagement and the “Need to Know”

There is an old tenet from computer science that goes:

“Garbage in, garbage out (GIGO) is the concept that flawed, or nonsense input data produces nonsense output or ‘garbage.’ The principle also applies more generally to all analysis and logic, in that arguments are unsound if their premises are flawed. GIGO is commonly used to describe failures in human decision-making due to faulty, incomplete, or imprecise data. This sort of issue predates the computer age, but the term can still be applied.” (Source: Wikipedia)

This neatly defines questions sometimes put to the tarot that can only be described as frivolous, the kind for which the legal disclaimer “for entertainment only” is a good catch-all classification. This scenario is likely to be encountered at a psychic fair, street event or party where people “sit” for a reading on a whim or lark and don’t have anything truly pressing to ask. Often there is little more than nosy intent behind their interest, while skeptics among them may only desire to challenge or “test” the reader. For those practitioners who believe that the art of divination confers a “sacred” obligation to answer all questions truthfully and fully to the limit of their ability, the only recourse when confronted with flippant or trivial requests is to “grin and bear it” (and take the money); if that is unconscionable, the best option — and my personal preference — is to simply avoid venues where it can become an issue. Some may feel that it’s presumptuous to place our own lofty values on a paying client’s needs, but I don’t have time to waste on idle-curiosity questions of the “What does person ‘A’ think or feel about person ‘B’?” variety. There is a precept in horary astrology which holds that no divination should be attempted if the seeker does not have a legitimate “need to know;” the same strict standard should be adopted by cartomancers.

A similar caveat applies when a serious seeker is so upset or distracted that focusing on the session and coming up with a clearly-phrased question to hold in the mind is impossible. The conventional wisdom is usually to defer the reading until a state of emotional equilibrium can be regained, but this presupposes that the reader is aware of the seeker’s dilemma. If the sitter is unwilling to confide this distress to the diviner, what “goes into the pot” can only be viewed as “psychic static” or the “garbage in” of the title, and “garbage out” may very well be the result of the consultation. This risk is more evident when the substance of the inquiry is unspoken, but it can also arise when querents fail to coherently verbalize the problem that most concerns them (assuming they even recognize its full import). We can say that the tarot always gives the “right” information regarding what is really bothering the individual at a subconscious level, but it may necessarily take a circuitous path to get there and severely test the reader’s skill and diligence in the process.

One remedy for the case where a sitter is mentally or emotionally unprepared to successfully frame the question is to attempt a more general or topical slant in which he or she fills in the details during our ensuing dialogue, essentially building the answer as we go based on hints in the spread. In such circumstances I may start the reading with only a broad topic area like decision-making; problem-solving; relationship matters; work, business or finances; overall health and happiness; or any other overarching subject of the querent’s choosing. My experience has been that this conversational technique produces meaningful results in nearly 100% of the cases, although it may take a little longer to get down to the nitty-gritty. I actually prefer it to addressing a single-pointed question since the narrative can take unexpected turns that are highly relevant to the sitter’s situation.

In my own practice I have occasionally encountered sitters who are too shy, nervous or confused to come up with a single question to put to the tarot. My approach has always been to have them concentrate silently on what is troubling them while shuffling the deck in a form of unspoken communion, although my goal hasn’t been to sooth their jitters but rather to maintain strict confidentiality. The wordless conversation that ensues is my business only to the extent that it influences the cards subsequently pulled in ways that I’m able to turn into meaningful observations. Usually the most I want to know in advance is the general area of life where their main interests lie, many of which involve an important decision or opportunity: romance, work, finances, friends, family, education, well-being, etc. I have a condensed “punch-list” that I show them with keywords and phrases to help them zero in. Obviously, more background information will almost always come out in our dialogue but it’s a place to begin in any topical life-reading.

Seasoned diviners have certain protocols and courtesies they go through between the time a sitter “sits” and the moment the reader“starts the clock” on the session. These are aimed at reassuring anxious or hesitant clients while gently drawing them into the dialogue of the reading, which is the only surefire way to guarantee that they will leave with the insights they’ve paid for. Those who sit there mute and wait to be enlightened are doing a disservice to both themselves and the reader. Their wary silence evokes the “pulling teeth” analogy and makes me feel like a dentist reaching for the extraction tools. At such times it does little good to just keep blithely talking over their blank stare and hope that something sinks in; more structured engagement tactics are needed. Here are mine, in approximately sequential order. (Depending on how much client-specific “hand-holding” is required, they usually take less time to perform than it does to read this essay.)

Physical Point of View: If it’s reasonable to do so (but only after the pandemic is over), I will ask clients to sit next to me at the same side of the table so we can view the cards from a nearly identical perspective. This is particularly helpful when interpreting reversed cards.

First Question: “Have you ever had a tarot reading before?” If the answer is “yes” I skip most of my introductory spiel; if it’s “no” I go through a brief explanation of what to expect, including those aspects (like the ritual “cut”) that I consider to be part of the “theater of tarot” (i.e. incidental elements of the “performer’s art”). I also like to spend a moment preparing them for the possible appearance of any of the visibly “nasty” cards in the deck, particularly Death, the Devil, the Tower and the Hanged Man. (I have a visual aid for this so I don’t have to dig out the cards).

Second Question: “Do you have a specific question or topic to ask about, or do you just want a general life-reading?” In either case, I instruct them to silently concentrate on the subject of interest, without telling me what it is, as they shuffle the deck. (I also have a visual aid with suggested topic descriptions for their consideration.)

Third Question: “How much, if anything, do you know about astrology and numerology?” This gives me an idea how vigorously I can delve into some of the more esoteric correspondences during the reading. However, the answer is typically “little or nothing” so I steer clear of exploring it further.

Handling the Cards: I always ask my clients to shuffle the cards themselves because it’s their subconscious awareness I want to engage in the ordering of the deck, not mine. Nobody has declined yet, but if they did I would ask them to cut instead.

Choice of Decks: I like to bring a few randomized decks to a session and ask the client to select the one they find most compelling. European readers I’ve mentioned this to scoff at the idea, but I think it is appreciated.

The “Conversation:” I make it known that I expect the reading to be a dialogue, not a one-sided monologue, and that I want to involve them in the process through conversation and feedback about the cards. I encourage them to interrupt with questions at any point during the reading. I tell them it’s their reading, I’m just the interpreter.

The “Take-away:” I offer them the upfront opportunity to record the narrative and to take a picture of the spread at the end if they want.

These are the fundamentals, but I’m constantly alert for original twists in the middle of a reading, often arising from my interaction with the sitter. I like to say that I learn something new about the human/tarot interface almost every time I read for someone else, even after doing it for many years.