How to Read a Querent's Nonverbal Behavior

by Elinor Greenberg, Ph.D.

As a practicing psychotherapist for over thirty years and a tarot enthusiast for the last ten, I have noticed that some of my therapy skills are very useful as a reader. I'd like to share with you some simple methods that will allow you to quickly understand what your querent's nonverbal behavior is communicating. Noticing and deciphering nonverbal cues can help you "read" the querent as well as the cards.

Basic Attitude

The first and perhaps simplest dimension to look at is how open and trusting he or she is. This can be observed in a global way by noticing whether the querent is leaning towards you or away from you and whether his or her arms and legs are crossed or open. Open and leaning towards you generally signals that the querent is eager and enthusiastic and looking forward to what you have to say. A closed stance that puts as much distance as possible between the two of you usually signals that the person is feeling very cautious and somewhat reluctant.

Changes in Posture

It also is useful to notice changes. If your querent started out in a removed and closed position and, as the reading progresses, moves into a more open and visibly relaxed one, this means that he or she has become much more comfortable with what is going on. A certain level of trust and interest has been established. Conversely, if the querent starts out visibly open and leaning towards you and is now sitting with crossed arms and legs and leaning away from you, this probably means that something you have said or done is turning the person off. This can be a sign that you need to shift gears and check out how the querent feels about what you are saying and whether you are on the right track.

It is a very good sign if you notice that your querent has unconsciously begun to adopt your posture, and both of you are mimicking each others nonverbal behaviors. For example, if you are seated with your head cocked to one side and you notice that the querent is tilting his or her head so as to look like the mirror image of you, or you lean in towards them and they simultaneously lean towards you, this indicates that the querent is feeling in sync with you and you have reached some basic level of agreement. Another signal of mutual attunement is if you find that you are both talking at approximately the same speed.

There are three classic nonverbal gestures that are easy to interpret once you know what you are looking at:

    The Silent "No"

    A tightly closed mouth, covered by a vertical finger, with the querent leaning away from the reader. This generally indicates that the person doesn't want to say anything more about whatever the two of you were talking about. Frequently, the person who makes this gesture has a general concern about exposing too much and feeling vulnerable. If you see your querent doing this, it is usually best to back off a bit and give the querent space. You have probably hit a nerve and now they are uncomfortable.

    Internal Conflict

    The querent's dominant hand is reaching out towards you, while the other hand grasps the reaching hand by the wrist, as if to pull it back. One part of the person wants to go forward, while some other part is hesitant and wants to play it safe.


    There is another tell-tale body movement that I call "the Lion's Tail." This is when someone is listening to you with one leg crossed over the other at the knee, while they are making circles in the air with the dangling foot. These foot circles are analogous to when a lion whips his tale from side to side before attacking. The person who is twirling their ankle in this way is usually feeling irritated or bored with what is going on, but is too polite or inhibited to interrupt you. When you see the ankle circling, this is usually a good time to ask the querent for input about the reading. Unlike the finger across the mouth gesture, which indicates a reluctance to speak, the ankle circle generally signals a desire to say something.

These nonverbal behaviors usually occur unconsciously. The querent is likely to be unaware that he or she is giving relatively clear signals about unexpressed thoughts and feelings. Should you call the querent's attention to any of these nonverbal behaviors, the usual response is for the person to immediately stop the gesture and become more guarded.

The single most important piece of advice that I can give you about reading your querent is to remind you to lift up your head from the cards to look at the person. As a reader, it is all too easy to get lost in one's own internal world and what the pictures on the cards are suggesting. Looking at the querent not only helps you understand his or her reaction to you and the reading, but also helps build a bond between the two of you. Or in tarot language, be The High Priestess when you are reading the cards, The Magician when you are focusing on your querent, and develop the bond of The Lovers between the two of you.

Elinor Greenberg, Ph.D., CGP, CPTR has been a practicing psychotherapist for thirty years. Dr. Greenberg is a teaching member of the New York Institute for Gestalt Therapy; former faculty member of The Masterson Institute for the Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy of Borderline, Narcissistic and Schizoid Disorders; and psychology consultant to The Tarot School and is in the National Registry for Certified Group Psychotherapists. Dr. Greenberg has been studying tarot for the past ten years and holds a Third Degree in tarot from The Tarot School.


Card images are from the Universal Waite Tarot Deck, Copyright US Games Inc.