To Rephrase or Not to Rephrase – What is the Question?
Rephrasing questions is a technique that is commonly used and taught to tarot students. It has a great deal of value as a learning tool, because it requires the reader to struggle with and set their own personal reading boundaries around ethics, personal empowerment, and reading style. There are indeed times when a question cannot or should not be answered as asked, but these are relatively few and generally deal with ethics violations. The remaining situations are those where the reader feels that the question would be more effective, empowering, or appropriate if worded differently.
However, there are a number of issues involved with rephrasing that have led me to become less comfortable with it over time. The following sections discuss 1) some reasons why rephrasing may be undesirable, 2) effective alternatives to rephrasing, and 3) if you need to rephrase, some tips and suggestions for doing so. I am aware that the ATA student materials promote rephrasing quite strongly, and nothing in this article should be taken as discouragement of that practice if it is what you are most comfortable with. The purpose of this article is simply to present an alternative point of view and to encourage each reader to actively think through the issue and explore your own personal choices and boundaries around the questions that clients ask.
Issues with Rephrasing
Even though it is a very effective approach for beginning readers, many readers become less comfortable with rephrasing over time, for some of the following reasons:
1) It can come across as somewhat patronizing and the client may perceive a lack of respect or understanding of their concerns. I do not believe that clients are incapable of asking the question they really want to ask. The fact that we, the readers, may feel there are more empowering questions they could ask does not diminish the client’s interest in their original question. They often do not understand that we have their best interests at heart, and may feel that we are simply not hearing them.
2) It is a well-respected and very helpful counseling technique to repeat back the client’s questions or concerns in their own words. This lets them know you are really hearing them. When you rephrase their question, this sends the message that their question was somehow inappropriate or inadequate, and you know better then they do what they really should have asked. Even if you are right, this doesn’t make them feel good and distances them from the reading, just when you want them to be most receptive.
3) Even after rephrasing, the answer to the original question often pops back up in the tarot reading – either in the cards themselves or in the reader’s interpretation. The energy of the question is there and does not go away because we try to ask a different question. Many experienced readers have noticed that rephrasing can be ineffective – it just may not work. Remember that your mind, subconscious and higher self are all involved in the tarot reading, and the mental construct you have of the question may well be more important than the specific wording that your conscious mind gives it. Other parts of your self may think in images or more abstract concepts, and may not “get” the rephrasing.
4) On the occasions when clients have been asked, many have reported that they don’t like rephrasing and feel offended by it (if you are not sure whether this is the case, I encourage you to try it). They may dismiss the reading if they don’t feel their question is being answered.
5) Unless it is handled very carefully, it can be an obvious and clumsy way of dealing with a poorly worded question and may get the reading off to a negative start. There are other ways of dealing with a poorly worded question that are more subtle, friendly, and helpful than right off the bat dismissing the client’s question and substituting one of your own, no matter how nicely you try to do it. And without a lot of practice, many readers don’t do it that well.
Alternatives to Rephrasing
An alternative approach may work well, most of the time:
- Letting them know you have concerns about the way the question is phrased *without* substituting one of your own
- Defining the card positions and meanings carefully so that the client is empowered even if they have not asked the question that way
- Reading the cards in such a way that the client gets the help they need without handing them the answers.
This preserves their original question while still providing, by example, the empowerment and tools they need. I believe this is a much more respectful and equally effective approach.
For example: the client asks “Will I leave my husband?”
Here is an opening paragraph that avoids rephrasing this question, even though this question is clearly not one we would want to answer directly.“Dear XXX,
Thank you for stopping by our web site for a reading! Your question is, will you leave your husband? XXX, only you can answer a question as important as this one. Your future is not predetermined and you can affect your fate through your own actions and free will. However, the tarot can assist you in looking at this situation and can give you helpful information with which to make this decision. For this question, we will use a three-card reading in which the first card represents strengths of your marriage, the second card represents issues or problems in your marriage, and the third card represents what will be most helpful to you in making a decision about whether to stay or leave your marriage.”
This opening paragraph is respectful of the client, avoids rephrasing her question, and yet puts the burden of the decision squarely back in her hands while still providing valuable information to help her make her decision. Notice that the same issue of empowerment and choice that underlies rephrasing is handled by informing the client directly of their power of free will and through the reading itself – it is not necessary to actually change the question that is asked. The layout that the reader chooses and the way the cards are interpreted are much more important steps in giving the client an empowering reading than rephrasing their question. This also makes sure that the reader stays on track with the central issue of concern to the client (the decision she has to make about leaving her husband) and doesn’t head off in another question by rephrasing this to a more general reading, such as “what does x need to know about her marriage”.
Other alternatives to rephrasing:
1) First, examine your motives for wanting to rephrase the question. If the reason is that it is a reading that is not unethical but is one you are just not comfortable with, you can pass it along to another reader on your network. For example, for a while I was not comfortable with pregnancy readings no matter how they were worded, but many readers are happy to do them. Timing readings are another category that some readers do and some don’t. If you are not in a situation where you can pass along the reading, you have the right to set boundaries about the types of readings you will do. Let the client know in a respectful way that this is not a question you feel comfortable with, and why. Give them some options for rephrasing or asking different questions so that the choice is put in their hands.
2) If you are certain that the question is one that is outside the ethical boundaries of the group, then you can explain the ethical issues to the client and ask *them* to rephrase the question to fall within the scope of your personal or group ethics. This is much better than you doing it for them – because then it’s their question again and they have learned how to phrase a good and ethical question. They are often grateful and interested to learn that tarot readers have a code of ethics, and this gives them a sense that we are responsible professionals, not fortune-tellers and entertainers.
Suggestions for Rephrasing a Question
If you feel it is appropriate or necessary to rephrase a question, here are some suggestions:
1) Acknowledge to yourself and the client that you, the reader, are making this choice because of your personal views on how readings should be done. It is *not* because of limitations of the tarot or because there was anything actually wrong with the question that was asked (assuming it was ethical). I have seen rephrasings that start like this “Because the tarot can only answer one question at a time…” or openings that subtly make it sound like the client’s deficiency for asking the wrong question. The tarot itself does not have these limitations – for example, there are many tarot spreads that handle multiple aspects of a client’s life and the interactions between them. It is the reader’s choice (and usually a good one for a one-card reading) to focus on one question. A better phrasing might be “I find that my readings are clearer if I focus on one question at a time. Since you seem most concerned about X, I have chosen this question for our reading today…”
2) Make sure you know why you feel it is necessary to rephrase the question, and explain this to the client as above. Some readers seem to get into the habit of rephrasing every question, with little or no explanation to the client. They cannot learn to ask better questions unless you explain to them what the issues are.
3) It might be best to avoid the word “rephrase”. Even though we know that what we are doing is rephrasing, the word itself may offend some clients. How about “I would like to ask the question this way…” or “Based on what you have told me, I would like to focus the reading on…”
4) Remember that each client and each question are individual and unique, and try to keep your reworded question as close as possible to the original question. Many readers use the rather generic rewording “What does X need to know about Y”. This is an easy way out which is often much less specific than the original question, and has some semantic problems as well. What the client may most need to know about the situation may in fact be the inappropriate question they originally asked! And you, the reader, will find yourself with a reading that you are not comfortable with. Maybe what they truly most need to know is when they will get their money, or whether their husband is cheating on them. This is what the cards may show you, and you have not achieved your goal of avoiding this type of reading. Try making the rewording more specific and more empowering. For example, someone asks, “My husband seems really distant lately. Is he having an affair? I am worried I will lose him.” Instead of “what do I need to know about my marriage?” – which may tell you that yes, he may very well be having an affair, try “what can I do to improve and strengthen my marriage?” This way you are sure to get a reading that is both empowering and avoids concrete predictions.
Exercise #1: Write an opening paragraph for a 3-card reading on the question “Should I quit my job and look for a new one? How will it work out if I do?” Handle this opening paragraph without rephrasing the question, and design a 3-card reading that will empower the client and give them the information they need without making their decisions for them.
Exercise #2: In your opinion, which of the following questions can be answered as is (Group A), which must be rephrased (Group B), and which are outside the boundaries of your personal reading ethics (Group C)? For those questions that need to be rephrased, write a sentence or two to the client explaining why they need to be rephrased and how you would suggest doing so. For the purposes of this exercise, assume that you can use three cards for the reading. For those questions that are outside the boundaries of your ethics, what related questions could you suggest to the client as alternatives? Note – these are all real questions I have received from clients requesting readings.
The purpose of this exercise is to help each reader find their own boundaries and comfort level with rephrasing. It is not important or necessary for us to all share a code of ethics or a single approach to rephrasing – it is only important that each reader work with these issues and actively think about them. For more on developing a code of ethics, see the related article.
1. When will I finally meet a man who will love and marry me?
2. How can I get along better with my mother-in-law?
3. I really need to know if my husband is having an affair!
4. I have a lawsuit going on right now. Will I win and when will I know for sure?
5. I am considering a new career as a writer. I am wondering whether this has any chance of success and whether I will be happy?
6. How can I keep my teenage son from getting in so much trouble?
7. Am I pregnant? If so, who is the father?
8. What is the name of my future husband?
9. I don’t know the what the question is, but I really need to know the answer! (this is not a joke, I am serious)
10. Will I be able to sell my house before June 7?
11. Does Bobby love Heather or does he love me?12. What can I do to improve my chances of getting a raise and promotion at work?