The Difficult Conversations Spread

difficult conversationsDifficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most by Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, and Sheila Heen, is a book I’d recommend to anyone. My copy has a thing on the front that says “New York Times Business Bestseller” and it’s categorized in “Psychology/Business” on the back, but I’m glad I didn’t let the association with business culture get in the way of reading this book, because it’s truly applicable from the most professional situation to the most personal one.

The authors’ argument is that difficult conversations–those that are difficult to broach or that trigger us emotionally–have three layers to them: the facts, the feelings, and the identity. If someone leaves a comment on my blog saying, “This post was poorly written,” three things are going on: the post itself (the fact), how I feel about being criticized (how I feel), and what part of my identity is being threatened by the criticism. If I am clinging to an identity of being a good writer or a smart person, I may feel defensive or angry–or I may do the opposite and give into despair: “I’m not a good writer after all.” I may respond by arguing about the facts–“This IS a good post, you just didn’t read it carefully!”–when what’s really important, and what are motivating 99% of my response to the comment, are my feelings and threatened sense of identity.

Now imagine a situation where it’s more complex: firing someone, breaking up with someone, telling a tenant that you’re selling the property and they’ll need to move, telling your parents you were sexually abused by a relative 20 years after it happened. Feelings and “identity-quakes” are going to be flying around and this book gives much great advice on handling them.

In preparing for a difficult conversation, tarot can help us, too, because it provides what we–who are so often identified with our identities and who act from our feelings–need: perspective. They get us out of the temporary feelings and thoughts of the moment and give us a space to see what we might be missing otherwise.

I mean, in approaching a difficult conversation you could just ask “what should I say?” and pull three cards, but working with an advanced model for how to think about this will make the tarot spread all the more effective.

The Spread

1. What happened: the facts of the situation. This is important because, as we all know but tend to forget when we’re reacting strongly to a situation, is that every story has at least two sides. Don’t assume that your story is the only story or that you know what the story even is. (An argument about, say, carpet vs. hardwood floors could really, in fact, be an argument in which one person is trying to get the other person to demonstrate commitment, while the other person has no clue about this and simply doesn’t have a preference for either carpet or hardwood floors!)

2. How do I feel about this situation? Seems like a stupid question to ask the tarot, but I find it to be one of the most illuminating. Sometimes the answer is not what you expect, but even when it is, it’s wonderful to see your feelings mirrored in the cards.

3. What identity or sense of self is being threatened, challenged, or changed by this situation? This is the big one. We carry around so many identities without even knowing it, and defend them not even knowing what we are doing. If someone says that I said something racist, I may argue with them about whether or not it’s a racist phrase or that it wasn’t racist because I didn’t intend to use it that way. I may go ballistic, research the history of the use of the phrase/word, or just shut that person out of my life. But what I didn’t know was that my entire response was motivated by feeling that my identity as a good person was threatened.

4. What is my goal in having this conversation? In Difficult Conversations, the authors ask you to think about this. What exactly is the goal? To tell the other person that they’re wrong or chew them out? To express your feelings? To come to an understanding? Before you even begin a conversation, it’s important to know what your motives are–because sometimes the conversation isn’t even worth having in the first place if all you want to do is chew someone out or complain to them about a situation that can’t be fixed.

5. What really needs to be said? Here we’re at the meat of it. What do you really need to say? What is your truth?

6. What is true but doesn’t need to be said? Telling a person that you want to break up with them because you don’t feel emotionally compatible is legit. Also telling them that you think their art is shitty is unnecessary. Sometimes things are true, but that doesn’t meant they need to be said.

7. What is the most important thing to keep in mind? I think of this as much of a how question as a what question. Think of this card as the lighthouse beacon for when the conversation begins to get off track. Sometimes this card will match up with #4–your goal. Sometimes it will be at odds with your goal, in which case you may need to reevaluate your purpose in having this conversation in the first place. You could even use this card as a talisman–bring it to the conversation or wear or carry something that reminds you of it.

dc spread edit.jpg

Here is a sample of this spread that I did recently. I got into an argument with a friend based on issues we’ve had before and now feel that I need to go back and talk about things. I won’t go into the details, but I’ll briefly run through each card.

  1. What happened? Mother of Swords, RX. I lost my temper, let my emotions get in the way of the facts. I was projecting my identity onto the situation.
  2. How do I feel? 10 of Wands, RX. Hell yes. Burnt out, exhausted, tired of having the same argument over and over.
  3. What part of my identity is being challenged? Mother of Cups. This one is funny because both the Mother of Cups and the Daughter of Cups are my significators. My sense of myself as a patient, compassionate person is being challenged.
  4. What is my goal in having this conversation? Five of Pentacles, RX. To undo pain and feelings of misunderstanding/isolation.
  5. What needs to be said? Four of Swords, RX. Some things that should have been said a long time ago, but weren’t. I need to stop covering things over and tell them my truth. These things need to be actionable.
  6. What is true that doesn’t need to be said? Daughter of Cups, RX. I don’t need to bring all my emotional immaturities upfront. I don’t need to go over in detail every time I was annoyed or upset. This is not about emotional venting.
  7. What is the most important thing to keep in mind? The Empress. That my goal is healing and I have it within me to do this.

Wow! I was very impressed with these when I turned them over. So much clarity here.

If you feel moved to use this spread, please comment and tell me how it went! And also consider picking up a copy of Difficult Conversations if you have some especially difficult conversations you need to have, or you have to have these kinds of conversations fairly often.*


* I bought this book with my own money and am recommending it based on my own experience.

The Mirror

mirror spreadI tend not to watch or read the news on a regular basis, preferring not to learn about the sufferings of the world through the heavy filters of  daily mainstream media. But I do think that it is important to know about suffering, even if everything in our own existence is comfortable for the moment.

Yesterday I found Sympathy at Slaughter, a Toronto-based project focused on bearing witness to the suffering of animals as they are about to be trucked into the slaughterhouse. I am vegan–but my cats are not. I also ate meat–and lots of it–for the first 20 years of my life. I am just as complicit in this suffering as anyone else; I am not trying to put myself on a pedestal or bathe in self-righteousness because the truth is that ALL food–even vegan food–involves suffering, violence, and exploitation. I have complex views about killing animals for food and am not a knee-jerk member of the Vegan Police or a supporter of PETA.  I realize that not everyone is in a position to go vegan–people live in food deserts, or they can only afford the cheapest of cheap food, like ramen, and yes, some people need meat in their diets in order to live.

That being said, I feel it’s important that those who buy meat from a grocery store or eat it in restaurants bear witness to the suffering that they are eating. Not only is factory farming one of the most environmentally destructive factors in the world right now, but the suffering of the highly intelligent animals featured in Sympathy at Slaughter is palpable: animals piled on top of one another, driven to the slaughterhouse in freezing temperatures or in temperatures so hot that they smother; animals standing in their own feces and that of others; animals covered in cuts and scratches; animals who, if they cannot get off of the truck quickly enough, are struck and poked with cattle prods over and over. This is the reality of the cheap meat that North Americans eat for two or three meals a day, every day of the week.

I then read the story of another kind of suffering: 6-year-old Strider Wolf, who at the age of 2 was beaten so severely by his mother’s boyfriend that a hole was punched in his stomach and his intestines were broken open. Strider and his younger brother now live (in poverty) with their grandparents, the only adults stable enough to take care of them. Living in rural Maine, they spent a spring and summer in an RV, moving from place to place after getting kicked out of their mobile home for failure to make rental payments on their lot. Strider’s grandparents’ health problems keep them from getting regular work and they struggle with not only financial stability, but creating an emotionally stable environment for the boys.

Bearing witness to suffering like this is difficult, but necessary. How could I begrudge some cheap meat to Strider and his brother? And yet, I know where it comes from. Reading these pieces, however, will lead to despair if it’s not done within the context of cultivating compassion and not followed up with self-care. Last night, feeling heavy with what I’d seen and read, I decided to turn to tarot, not to make the suffering go away, but to affirm what I was feeling.

When I am in pain, the most helpful thing to do with tarot cards is to not ask them a question. When we ask questions,  we want answers–we want certainty. But I didn’t need any answers, I just wanted confirmation of what I was feeling. So I pulled out my small Thoth deck and asked, “Can you please just mirror what I’m feeling back to me?” I then laid the cards out in a cross formation (I did a Celtic cross, but I have also done a full-on Latin cross for this exercise.)

mirror spread

This is what I got: the Empress, surrounded by Justice/Adjustment, The Knight of Cups, the 3 of Wands (“Virtue”) and the 5 of Disks (“Worry.”) I wrote in my journal:

Seeking justice,
supported by virtue,
worried, saddened,
a questing heart,
a grounded healer.

An earthy center surrounded by the four elements on all sides. The Empress is an expression of my desire to heal and my capacity to feel compassion. She looks forward to the Knight of Cups, whose heart seeks after ideals based in love. She is supported in all that she does by a strong sense of goodness and virtue–not ethical perfection, but the desire of trying to figure out what is right in every moment. Above her is the ideal she seeks for: justice, the righting of wrongs. Behind her, compelling her actions, are the worries and sorrows of the world.

I have not done this mirroring exercise many times, but when I do, it always turns out to be a potent method of self-love and self-care. It’s not that the cards are somehow sentient and tell me things about myself that I don’t know. Rather, the images and words on the cards give me a space to remind myself of my own good qualities, the validity of my struggles, and the fact that I feel pain when seeing the suffering of others is a positive quality. That being said, it seems like the art of the Thoth deck is most conducive of this result for me and I’ve never entrusted this exercise to any other deck.

Tarot always functions as a mirror, but I think sometimes we can see more clearly when we do not expect anything of the deck apart from simple recognition. No answers, no certainty, no advice; just confirmation and a sense that your feelings are valid. I’ve never seen this method written about anywhere else, but I doubt I’m alone in practicing it. Has anyone else tried?


The Wooden Tarot: Suit of Bones 2-5

This is part of an ongoing series in which I write about my interpretations of the cards in A.L. Swartz’s Wooden Tarot. You can find the other posts here.

I think this set of cards may be the most sparsely illustrated in the entire deck, which is both freeing and intimidating. The Wooden Tarot, while it may be based in the Waite-Smith tradition, also calls upon me to use my experience reading with other systems, particularly the Thoth tarot, and so I will be drawing a little bit upon both of them here.

Bones 2-5

Two of Bones

Two nearly identical jaw bones (the one on the left is missing its lower canine) with a lemniscate above them. (Well, that was the shortest card description in the history of tarot!)

It’s worth noting that all of the 2’s in this deck are similarly illustrated–two nearly identical suit symbols with a lemniscate above them. This makes reading the 2’s closer to Marseilles style of reading suit + number = meaning. While I know that the lemniscate is a symbol for infinity and that it appears on the 2 of Pentacles in the Waite-Smith deck, I wanted to know more specifically what it might mean. And so, I turned to Rachel Pollack’s Tarot Wisdom. The lemniscate

symbolizes the truth that life is eternal, without beginning or end, that nothing is destroyed but only changes form. –p. 36

This reminds me of the Thoth tarot 2 of Disks, which features an ouroboros twisted into the shape of a lemniscate. The keyword for that card is “Change.” Change, or impermanence, is one of the three marks of existence in Buddhist thought, and hence its connection to the eternal qualities mentioned by Pollack. As long as we exist–as long as anything exists–there will be change.

So how does all this apply to this image of two jawbones? Jaw bones are things that need to work together (you can’t chew) but are also constantly shifting their responsibilities. When we chew, we shift the food from one side of our mouths to the other. I think this very practical application says a lot about this card in the suit of Bones/Pentacles: physical things in our lives are not static; we do a dance with them as they change and wear out or as we change and wear out. Money flows in and out, clothes get worn out and need to be replaced, the seasons change–everything in our lives changes, all at different rates, all needing our attention in some way.

The missing tooth on the left jaw bone, then, is a signal that change is inevitable, that the tooth fell out and now we need to do something to compensate for the loss of the tooth. We shift from one foot to the other and back again, taking care of material needs as they arise. The missing tooth isn’t a sign of imperfection, it’s simply a sign of how things are.

Keys: making do; dealing with fluxes of money or material goods; keeping goods and finances in tune; adjusting to changes in living situation, whether those be human-made or caused by changes in the environment

Reversed: in denial about changes; feeling stuck or unable to cope with them; losing balance with financial responsibilities, material possessions, or work situation

Three of Bones

Three bones come together to form a joint, and out of the joint itself sprout two little mushrooms.

It’s images like these that make me wish I knew more about anatomy, either human or animal.I want to say that this image is of the tibia, tarsus, and metatarsus bones, perhaps in the hind leg of a dog or cat. At any rate, unlike the jaw bones of the 2, which are separate and we have to imagine working together, these three bones are already working together to form something really important: a joint. Each bone has its separate function in giving structure to the leg, but working together as a joint the bones are greater than the sum of their parts. We have three rigid things that come together to make flexibility.

As implied by the little mushrooms growing from the joint, it’s a fruitful thing. (“Fruiting body,” the term for mushrooms and other fungus that emerge from the mycelium to reproduce, is one of my favorite terms ever.) There are some implications for decay and change here as well, but I will talk about the whole mushrooms-sprouting-from-bones thing when we get to the 7 of Bones.

Keys: cooperation; something greater than the sum of its parts; the first fruits of collective labor

Reversed: insisting on working alone, for better or worse; losing time or money because of lack of cooperation; types of cooperative work (like needless meetings) that are unproductive

Four of Bones

The four bones of a rib cage. (I take that back, THIS is the shortest description of a tarot card ever.)

I will be honest and say that I’m not a huge fan of how the 4 of Pentacles is portrayed in the Waite-Smith deck. There are a few cards (the 9 of Cups also comes to mind) where the shadow of the meaning is illustrated more than the meaning on the face of it. The guy sitting there with his 4 big pentacles, clinging to all of them, is certainly one aspect of the card: miserliness and clinging to material things. But that’s not the only meaning.

The Thoth deck keyword for the 4 of Disks is “Power,” and indeed the illustration to the card is a bird’s-eye view of a moated fortress with four watch towers. So while the 4 of Pentacles/Disks can mean that you are hoarding stuff and being stingy, the other interpretation is simply that you are financially stable or, what I like to think, that you have arrived at a place where you feel like you have enough.

The rib cage on the 4 of Bones, then, could go either way. The four ribs provide structure, stability, and protection. At the same time, they are a cage, and may suggest protecting something that doesn’t need to be protected. I think this card is very context-dependent and I like that the open-endedness of the Wooden Tarot allows for multiple interpretations.

Keys: financial or material stability; the feeling of having enough; having a good home base or “nest” to return to at the end of the day

Reversed: miserliness; clinging to money or things; hoarding

Five of Bones

The bone pictured in this card is a scapula, or shoulder blade (although not a human one.) It has been severely damaged: cracked in five places with two large pieces broken off. It should be noted, then, that the “five” of this card refers to the fractures themselves, rather than the suit symbol.

While the Waite-Smith card shows two ill/disabled beggars in the snow, the Thoth deck names this card “Worry.” Again, I think Swartz’s card falls in between them.

Alright, so I’m learning a lot about skeletal anatomy today. It is interesting that of all the bones Swartz chose for this card, that he chose the shoulder blade. Although scapula fractures are apparently rare in humans, the significance of this bone is perfect for the meaning of the card. The scapula is necessary for moving the arms/front legs, and its place on the shoulders makes one think of “shouldering” burdens. With this card, we could be shouldering a significant amount of financial worries, or we could be like the beggars in the Waite-Smith card–encountering financial hardship because of illness, disability, a bad job market, or other life circumstances. Unlike the other bones featured so far, which seem pretty flimsy on their own, this strange fracturing of the scapula shows the brokenness of what was once strong and whole.

The one aspect of the Waite-Smith card that I really love is the church window above the beggars, which suggests that financial hardship may be an opportunity for spiritual and personal growth. In that light, the card could even mean deliberate austerity, such as a vow of poverty. But that’s just one of the quirks of Smith’s deck and it’s not shared by the Wooden Tarot.

Keys: debt; homelessness; job loss; illness (especially with large hospital bills); or a great amount of worry about these things

Reversed: mending financial situation; accepting help from others; adjustment to a lower standard of living