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The Barrettas on Teachers, Frogs and Polka Dancers |

Teachers, Frogs and Polka Dancers

An Interview with Norma and Phil Barretta
Header Image for Barretta Brief Therapy Interview

The Barrettas on Teachers, Frogs and Polka Dancers

From the Milton H. Erickson Foundation Newsletter
Autumn 1992
Vol. 12 No. 3

Interview with the Barrettas
by Michael D. Yapko, PhD

Barrettas Norma and Philip Image

Norma Barretta, Ph.D., and Philip Barretta, M.A., M.F.C.C., are widely recognized as superb teachers of Ericksonian approaches. Their inimitable style of blending is the product of a long, happy marriage on both professional and person levels.

The Barrettas have shared a private practice in clinical psychology for more than 20 years. They have studied personally with Dr. Erickson, and both have their own unique slants on his methods. The Barrettas travel extensively, teaching throughout the world. Norma is a past president of the Los Angeles Academy of Clinical Hypnosis, and a fellow of the American society of Clinical Hypnosis. Phil is a special member of both the southern California society of clinical hypnosis and ASCH.

Michael: Please begin by providing some biographical information.

Norma: We were both born in Camden, N.J. It’s a great place to be from, but not such a nice place to live—now. It was a wonderful community a long time ago, back in the 1930’s, ‘40s and 50s.

Phil: We used to say that we went back there to go home, but we don’t say that anymore. Since 1960, home has been in California.

Norma: We went to the same high school, although we didn’t know each other. I went to the University of Pennsylvania; Phil later went to Rutgers to get my Master’s Degree in Psychology and Education.

Phil: After Rutgers, I went to law school for two years at Georgetown University. I decided that law was not for me and I ended up teaching quite by accident. Our youngest child, Jolie, was given a scholarship in kindergarten at Georgetown Day School, a private school for gifted children in Washington D.C. I had a job at that time which allowed me a lot of freedom, so I took her to school. I would play games with the boys there throwing a football around, playing ball, etc. The headmaster saw me and suggested I would be a good teacher. I told him I never had a teaching course in life. He said, “I see how you interact with the students, and what new need is someone to teach American History and American literature.” Well, humanities was my field.

Norma: When I came home and he told me, I said, “Wow, we’d have vacations together, and your hours would be better. Look at it this way: you’re bigger than the kids, you’re older, wiser, better educated, more experienced, and I’ll help you.” So I taught him how to write lesson plans, which he immediately discarded. Once he knew what they were for, he never used them again. “Too restrictive,” he said. We spent a number of years as teachers. We were living in Virginia at the time. In 1959 neither of us ever had any notion of getting into the field we’re in now.

Phil: We enjoyed our work. When Norma and I left for California on a vacation, we fully expected to come back into the same teaching routine: Norma was teaching in Virginian and I was teaching in Washington, D.C., but when we got to California, the friends we were visiting assumed we had to come stay. One of our friends had made appointments in seven school districts. I said, “Let’s go and find out what’s here.” They offered us jobs everywhere we went at a much higher salary than we were earning. What a temptation!

Norma: There was a desperate need for teachers. This was 1960 when the “baby boom” was in full swing, and teachers were in short supply. They offered us a veritable fortune at the time–$4,000 more a year than we were earning back East. But I wanted to go back East because we were building a beautiful home on a hillside in Fairfax, Va., and I was looking forward to that. But Phil said, “No, we’re staying in California.” I said, “No, we’re going back.” Phil said, “No, we’re staying.” Guess who won that round? We moved to California. We worked as teachers. I was a special reading teacher and Phil taught seventh and eighth grade. I started in a Doctoral program at USC, planning to teach teachers how to teach reading. I was very good at it. I could teach kids who couldn’t read, and 12 to 15 weeks later, they were fairly literate.

Phil: I was teaching middle school, and I also went back to school to Ca. State Long Beach working on a Masters in Counseling.

Norma: Eventually, I realized I was in the wrong major. Teaching reading was not where I wanted to be for the next 30 years. I switched to the Psychology department because I realized I wouldn’t be able to spend the rest of my life teaching reading. I thought I would become jaded, unhappy and disillusioned. I was introduced to the world of psychology. It was a very interesting and I was lucky to have had several excellent teachers. I was “turned on,” and Phil immediately became my “guinea pig.” I tried everything that I learned on him. Sometimes it worked, and sometimes it didn’t.

Michael: Somewhere along the way, you became pretty intensely involved in the NLP movement.

Norma: I was a school psychologist and one of my colleagues handed me Bandler and Grinder’s “The Structure of Magic.” I became very excited about that. That was shortly before Bandler and Grinder’s “The Patterns of Milton Erickson, Vol. I.” appeared, so I read that book, too, and that one really turned me on. We became more involved because of an NLP workshop that was being given in our area.

Phil: It was presented by someone other than Bandler and Grinder. Both of us were fascinated by the fact that there were little chunks of information so palatably presented that it was impossible not to learn. What we soon discovered was that we were not really learning Neuro-Linguistic Programing, we were actually learning hypnosis. That came as a big surprise, because I had not tied the two together, even though I read “The Patterns of Milton Erickson, Vol. I.”

Michael: Was it through NLP exposure that you first became exposed to the work of Dr. Erickson?

Phil: Yes. In fact, it was when we were doing some work with John Grinder, Richard Bandler, Leslie Camperson-Bandler and Judith DeLozier. John watched us work and suggested we see Dr. Erickson. Norma told him we were trying to get into see him, but it was nearly impossible to do so.

Norma: I was told there was a long, long waiting list, and I had given up trying to see him. Then Jon Grinder said, “When can you go?” I told him we’d go any time, and we would just change our schedule to accommodate a visit. The next morning, John gave me a telephone number said, “Call this number when you get home. He’ll be waiting for your call. Call at noon.” I dialed the number, but I never expected to hear the voice of Dr. Erickson, which I was familiar with from his videotapes and audiotapes. The phone was picked up after ringing a couple of times, and I heard this magical voice say, “I’ve been waiting for your call.” I became speechless. I couldn’t say a word. Then, I heard, “This is Norma Barretta, is it not?” Suddenly I had total amnesia for my name! After a few seconds, I said, “Yes, it is.” He then asked, “Can you come next Monday?” I told him that we would be there. Then he turned the phone over to Betty to get our names and give us directions.

Michael: Can you describe your first meeting with Dr. Erickson?

Phil: Awesome. I saw this man all in purple sitting in a wheelchair. Bright eyes, looking at every one of us, checking each of us out. No question about it, he was calibrating each of us.

Michael: Was this part of a group training that he was doing?

Norma: Yes. And fortunately for us, our first time, there were only four other there. It was a very small group.

Phil: He asked us to fill out a paper and asked for very little information compared to what others usually ask for when they are gathering information. He wanted to know our names, marital status, where we had been reared – in the city or the country – and how many siblings we had.

Norma: We also were told by John Grinder that if we wanted something “special” to write it on that intake sheet. He told us to state exactly what we wanted. I asked for more freedom to use my creative mind. I wanted to be able to speak about things I sometimes thought but found myself unable to say, and to have my creativity quickly and easily available to me.

Phil: I asked for basically the same, namely to free up my right brain.

Norma: The next day one of the people left which made the group even smaller. We sat in the little office where Dr. Erickson had his desk. By then he knew us pretty well, because the first night he asked us to come in and look at all of his various artifacts. He said to me, “If I give you an amethyst, would you promise to make it into a ring and wear it every day?” John Grinder had warned that he was very tricky. John said, “When you hear what he has to say, think on it before you respond.” I thought for a moment and I said, “Well that depends. May I see the amethyst before I make the promise?” Dr. Erickson smiled. His eyes lit up and he pointed to this huge, huge amethyst. I walked over, picked it up, laid my hand on the table, put it up on top of my hand and said, “Well, I would only be able to wear it for a very short time each day.” I think that really established a link between us. The next day, he began to weave a story that was obviously designed for Phil and me. He described our childhood. Somehow, he had picked up the fat that I was Polish and not Italian. No one had told him that, I’m sure. My last name is Italian, and I look Italian. He began to weave a story about a Slavic girl and a Latin boy. He told the story of our lives, including some intimate details that no one, except Phil and I, had information about! We got back to the hotel that night and said, “This guy is a wizard! He got into our heads. How did he do that?” We had no idea at the time. I’m sure now, in retrospect, that he would throw out a little hook to us and watch what we did in response.

Phil: He watched what we responded to; he was then able to respond to our responses. A regular “gypsy!”

Norma: At that point, I was really hooked. I fell in love with the man! Then, all that week we were invited to his house after the group ended and he would chat with us. That was really a delight, because that was so special.

Phil: One of the statements he made have a very profound effect on me, and I have used the statement often. He would ask someone to get a carving – that appeared to be a wood carving – and bring it to him. That person would reach for the carving and find it very difficult to lift because it was heavy. It was carved from ironwood. Dr. Erickson would say, “Things are not always as they seem.” That statement often has been a very effective reframe in therapeutic intervention.

Norma: Another one of those “magical phrases” was a response he gave when I asked if I might kiss him goodbye when we were leaving. He said, “Nothing ventured, nothing gained.” We learned so much from him.

Michael: How much time did you spend with Dr. Erickson?

Norma: The first time, we spent the whole week with him. Other times, we went back for three or four days at a time. It was about three years that we studied with him before he died.

Michael: You had given Dr. Erickson a birthday card that was very special, from what I understand.

Phil: It was a homemade cut-and-paste project. It was put on 8 ½ X 11 sheets of paper. We cut out pictures of him and words and stories pertinent to things he had done. It was a commentary on Dr. Erickson and his accomplishments cut out from newspapers and magazines.

Norma: It started when I saw an article in the Los Angeles Times Titled, “I never met-a-phor I didn’t like.” That gave us the idea, so we made the card. Some students of ours delivered it to him. I got a note back that was a delight. Mrs. Erickson told me he showed it to everyone because he was really delighted with that card.

Phil: I had a note from him, also. We went to visit him one time and I left my wallet in his office. When I took off my jacket, my wallet had fallen out. Later, we were at the airport and I heard my name on the loud speaker, “Philip Barretta, please pick up the courtesy phone.” I did, and Mrs. Erickson said, “Phil Barretta, Dr. Erickson would like to talk with you.” He picked up the phone and asked, “Do you have your wallet?” I said, “Of course I do.” Then I reached in my back pocket and realized it was gone! I then said, “No, I don’t.” He said, “I have it. I will send it to you.” Of course, I was relieved that they had it. We got back home and the wallet came in the mail. On a prescription sheet he wrote, “Shakespeare says, ‘A man’s wallet is his trash.’ I have enough trash of my own. Here’s yours.”

Michael: After your experience with Dr. Erickson, how would you say his work influenced yours?

Phil: I began to tell more stories. I began to use a lot more metaphor. From my frame, this is primarily what Erickson did. He told a metaphor about the metaphor presented to him. I allowed myself more freedom to make these kinds of statements. Before that, my therapeutic interventions were very formal. To tell a story about some experience from my own life or to make one up was something I never did until after our Erickson experience.

Michael: Do you have a favorite metaphor?

Norma: There’s a frog metaphor.

Phil: A woman came in who had just been divorced, and she literally “got the business” in her settlement. She actually had done very little with the family business and now she simply could not get mobilized to take over. I told her she reminded me of this frog hopping down the road. She looked at me strangely. I went through the whole story about a frog who came upon another frog who was stuck in a rut in the road. The frog on top of the road said, “What are you doing in that rut?” The other frog said, “I don’t know. I was hopping along, minding my own business, not paying very much attention to anything, and I fell into this rut. I can’t get out. Can you help me?” The frog on the road said, “Sure, take my hand.” The other frog jumps, but can’t make contact there either. The frog in the rut said, “I have an idea, why don’t you jump down here, I’ll get on your back and then I’ll jump out!” The frog on top of the road said, “No, I don’t like that idea. If I jump down there, I’m liable to get stuck the same as you! There are a lot of things I want to do and I must be on my way.” He goes off hopping down the road. He gets 60, 70 yards from the frog in the rut, and he hears, “Rib-bit.” He turns around and there’s the other frog right behind him! He said, “Wait a minute! I just left you back in that rut. You said you were there for a long time, and you said you couldn’t jump out. I tried to help you, and couldn’t get you out. Suddenly, you’re right behind me! What happened?” The other frog says, “There was a truck coming.” When I ended the story, the woman asked, “What does it mean?” I said, “I just tell them. I don’t explain them.”

Norma: She turned to me and said, “Then you explain it.” I said, “Well, that would be like handing you an orange to eat with the pulp removed and you’d have only the skin.” She became quite angry and said, “I’m paying you! I demand to know what it means!” Both of us refused. She was furious and left. She did, however, come back about three weeks later. She sat down in the chair and said, “I’ve opened a new bank account. I changed the name of the business. I’ve hired a new accountant…” She reported a litany of things she had done that she couldn’t seem to do before. Somehow she had mobilized herself. Now all of a sudden all this work she couldn’t accomplish before was done. She sat back in the chair and said, “I guess my truck came along.” It was at that moment that she understood the metaphor.

Michael: Is the use of a metaphor a principal part of your practice?

Norma and Phil: Major.

Michael: Many people in the hypnosis field and in the therapy field have been critical of metaphors as an approach. In particular, people criticize the type of thing that you just alluded to, where you provide a metaphor but won’t provide and interpretation of it. Is there a danger of being so indirect or so obtuse as to not be able to effectively communicate to the client the metaphor’s intention? Are you aware of any contraindications for the use of metaphorical approaches?

Norma: before we provide any metaphors, we gather a great deal of information. We talk. We listen to what the person is struggling with, and we ask what outcomes the person wants. Very often, we will not tell any metaphors at all in the first session; we just gather lots of information and set some possible goals and outcomes. When we’re working together, Phil and I discuss many possibilities, including what the metaphor is that the person is presenting. We just don’t go in and blindly tell a story. That would be foolish! It would work, at best, a small part of the time. We like a good return on what we do, so we first gather a great deal of information before we do any story telling.

Phil: One of the real benefits of two of us working together as co-therapists is that while one of us is involved with the patient discussing the “presenting problem,” making a point about something, or collecting data, the other is watching closely for particular reactions. We can then strategize and devise the process that will help break up the destructive patterns that seems to be getting in the way of that person’s progress in life. We look for the repetitive loops rather than responding to just the content of “the problem.” We notice how they say what they say, what patterns can be interrupted, whether there are “cause-effect” triggers, and what keeps them locked into the non-useful or obsolete pattering they’re in. Then, the other of us can step in and begin an ameliorative process. When that happens, the other can then back off and watch and possibly come up with yet another pattern interruption, or an intervention. So between us it’s a constant moving in and out—like a dance.

Norma: The linguistic aspects of the person’s delivery give us a great deal of information about their life patterns: how they experience life, where they’re looping, where their flaws in thinking are, and how they keep getting stuck in the same kinds of non-useful behaviors, which can be destructive and must be changed.

Michael: In your description, you both talked about what it is like to be able to use each other as resource in formulating the therapy process. It certainly is an unusual arrangement to have a husband-wife therapist team working as a couple with individual clients. Can we talk a little about what it is like to be both husband and wife and co-therapists?

Phil: interesting at the very least, and often exciting. It’s intense, it’s constant, and yet we have enough of the same kind of background and training to make it work well, especially in terms of assisting each other. We both have the NLP background, and we have the Ericksonian information and perspective. With that as a common base, we know how to come to an effective outcome with patients and often provide what they’re looking for. We’ve been married 44 years this year, so we have each other calibrated pretty well. We don’t have many disagreements in our work or our personal lives.

Michael: The respectfulness that you both have in dealing with each other really shines through in the workshops that you do. I’ve worked with you and I’ve learned from you. The chemistry between you two, whether it’s from 44 years of marriage or your shared passion for teaching is phenomenal. It is evident in the way that you relate to each other that you are able to deal with each other in the best of ways.

Phil: Part of that comes from our ability to be aware of each other, and to notice what is happening around us. We often can finish each other’s statements. As one begins, the other can complete it. In fact, sometimes we’ll do that in such a way that it ends up being a double induction in stereophonic sound. And we are able to express ourselves as individuals very easily without having to step on each other’s toes or interrupt each other. It’s a flow, because we are so attuned to each other as we’re working. There is a dance that is going on between us that keeps us aware of where we each happen to be at any particular moment.

Norma: Maybe I can explain it better.

Phil: Better?

Norma: Well, academically speaking, of course… I do tend to be slightly more academic than Phil. I’m more the scholar. I do the reading. I tell Phil what is interesting, and I’ll highlight things for him to read if I think it would be useful or interesting to him. Then he’ll respond to what I presented, but differently than I do. It’s as if I’m giving him one facet of the stone, and he immediately turns it around to show me another facet. He has such a creative mind in terms of being able to search out and access alternative meanings of words. He sees ambiguity and he will find some humorous way to restate what I just said, often turning the meaning completely around. I think this is one of the things he learned from Dr. Erickson. I think that’s one reason that we, as we both like to put it, “dance” so well together.

Phil: In fact, we did something in Russia illustrative of that last year when we were teaching there. We went to four different cities—we were in St. Petersburg at the time. We were presenting on the stage and we used the metaphor of dancing together because the question was asked, “is this all rehearsed?” We said, “no. We follow a basic format but we never present it the same way since our audience changes.” And then we literally danced together. We got up and began to do a Slavic dance, the Polka. Then, the Russian said, “Yes, but could you go in the other direction?” We immediately switched and went in the other direction—not an easy feat if you know the Polka—and we can do it! The Russian bowed to us and sat down.

Michael: Well, how you two complement each other has been recognized in a variety of places. You continue to teach for the Erickson Foundation, and in fact, you will be presenting at the Fifth International Congress in December. You continue to teach for the American Society of Clinical Hypnosis (ASCH). Norma, you have been made a Fellow, and Phil, you have been made a “Special Member” of ASCH. What do you think are the things that are most important about what you do that you want to give the greatest emphasis to?

Norma: I think our experiences with Dr. Erickson and their role in the more recent teaching we’ve done have given me a sense of mission. I see so much poor quality hypnotic work from students who come into an advanced class when they don’t have the necessary background. I occasionally see practitioners who are doing what I consider to be less than impeccable hypnotic work, and it concerns me. I think Phil and I have devised a way of teaching people to sort so well that they will become skillful at doing hypnosis.

Michael: What do you mean by “sort?”

Norma: To distinguish the subtleties in what they see and make use of them by doing hypnotic work that suits the person they are working with. We have a little saying, “As you wander on through life, whatever is your goal…”

Phil: “…keep your eyes upon the donut and not upon the hole.”

Norma: So we teach sensory acuity, which is an extremely important factor in doing hypnosis well. In many hypnosis courses, the students just learn to feel that they deliver good suggestions and hopeful the person will go into trance. With our methods, they have sure evidence that the person will go into trance. With our methods, they have sure evidence that the person has gone into a trance. And, if the person hasn’t gone into a trance, they, as hypnotist guide, have to do something differently. They have to change what they are saying, and they have to match the client’s experience more carefully. In other words, in order to be a skillful hypnotist, they have to sort the information that’s coming in and then sort the linguistic delivery that they’re going to present back to the subject. My mission is to go beyond that. I want to take those people who become skillful and see if they’re really interested in becoming artistic. I think the difference between skill and artistry is the ability to sort impeccably.

Phil: The most powerful piece of knowledge I learned from Dr. Erickson was his ability to see what was there. What does your visual acuity tell you? What are you getting from people? That will determine what you say. A hypnotist cannot just say words. Once, we were doing a workshop with another colleague. A student who had prior hypnosis training with someone else had decided to do his own thing with his subject rather than follow the instructions we had given him. He did an arm levitation induction. He had her arm extended, and all the while he was looking, not at the subject but toward the audience while saying, “You can’t bend your arm. You can’t do this. You can’t do that.” Meanwhile the subject was experiencing an abreaction! She was actually trembling. What we did was take the subject away and had a colleague sit in the chair the subject had been in. When the “performing” student finally looked back at the subject and saw someone else, he went into an instant trance. We insist that our students become exquisite observers—that they are aware people are often in trance without formal induction. Many hypnotists have no concept of that happening, and our students notice such things after the first few sessions.

Michael: You continue to do workshops all over the world. You mentioned having been to Russia last year, and I know you were just in Italy. What kinds of things might you be emphasizing in the future that haven’t so much been a part of trainings? In other words, where is your teaching going?

Norma: I want to get into more of the artistry of hypnosis. For only the second time since we’ve been teaching we’ve been doing advanced hypnosis training for students who have come along quite a ways and already have advanced skills. We are going to teach them some of the elaborate artistry necessary to do hypnosis. That requires a great deal of sensory acuity, a greater range of linguistic skills, and the ability to patter what you’re saying based what you’ve observed. We’re both having some fun designing the program. I’d like to do more of that.

Phil: And, we’re doing Love, Honor, and Negotiate. We are in the process of writing a book about the skills we’ve learned which have kept us together and happily pleased with each other for 44 years.

Norma: One other thing I really enjoy is working with people who have been referred to us from great distances. Quite often these days we get people who fly in from faraway places. In the past five years, we’ve had people from Australia, Thailand, Florida, Brazil, Columbia, Maryland, Italy, Canada, and Alaska. These people come with such a wonderfully high motivation levels. They are traveling a great distance. They get a lot of time to think about what they’re going to work on. Generally, they will stay for a week and we will see them anywhere from four to six separate sessions during that week. We see a lot of quick change because of the intensity of the work, and also because they come so highly motivated. I love that that is one of my favorite pieces of our work because we see such quick results. We also are doing a lot of supervision. Many of our students are therapists who will bring their own patients into see us. They sit in on our session and then utilize what they’ve watched us do. There’s a great deal of satisfaction in being a model for someone. We call our approach C.B.B.T. – Competency Based Brief Therapy.

Michael: Well, let’s go into the personal realm. Talk a little bit about family life. You have been married 44 years, and are still friends, colleagues and lovers.

Phil: How to stay good lovers, by the way, is never to have an argument in the bedroom! We have our arguments while we walk-or we’ll go to a restaurant. It helps us keep our voices down. So far we have been asked to leave only one restaurant, so that’s fairly good record.

Michael: You have kids and you have grandchildren. Would you like to talk a little bit about your family life?

Phil: We have three children. They are all adults now. We have a son, Bruce, who will be 43. He’s getting old! Then there’s Peggi, our daughter, she’s 40. And our youngest, Jolie, who is 37. She just presented us with a new grandchild. Evan Barret Keyser, who is a delight. They say he has my eyes. Peggi’s daughter, our granddaughter, Livia, is six this year. A real sweetheart. Bright little gal. We also have a 15-year-old grandson, Bruce’s son, Tony. He is a Junior Champion Bowler and is learning to play golf. He, too, is extremely bright.

Michael: What do you two do for fun?

Norma: I garden and grow things we eat. I grow most of my own herbs and some of my own vegetables and occasionally, some fancy things. We also have citrus trees, including a Sicilian orange.

Phil: And a fig tree, and an apple tree.

Norma: Occasionally, Phil helps me out. And we both love to cook. Phil has become an expert pasta chef and he makes the best pound cake you’ve ever tasted.

Phil: She’s the farmer, and I often cook up the harvest. I’ve been involving myself more with golf. And we still like to dance.

Norma: How many people in their 60s do you know who become wildly enthusiastic about something new? This enthusiasm in him reminds of when he was 22. He is so excited about golf! After he plays, when comes home—it’s like having a kid in the house. It’s wonderful!

Phil: Regardless of what the score is. If my score is high, I tell my golfing buddies I got more out of the game than they did because I hit the ball more often. We both love to travel. We have a network of friends where we can actually travel to almost every state in the United States. We are always adventuring to keep life exciting.

Michael: Well, thanks very much for the interview, Norma and Phil. It’s been fun.

Dr. Norma Barretta, PhD, will be presenting a seminar on Blending Hypnosis with Sound with Jolie A.C. Barretta Keyser at the December 2018 Brief Therapy Conference.

Philip Barretta will be remembered for his remarkable communication skills, his beautiful smile, and his kind, gentle, playful, compassionate, optimistic, joyful, hilarious, and irrepressibly humorous outlook on life.