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Andrew Gwynne

How to change your mind – my Spanish adventure

By Blog

Modern life is relentless, isn’t it? Rain or shine, I’m out and about as a freelance fitness trainer and running coach. My army reservist role means a frequent trek across town to the base in North London. And weekends often find me testing my energy and military skills in some distant places. You might think there’s little room for anything else. 

But three years ago I found time to start a new journey. Looking back, it’s changed my life – and my mind. Perhaps the story will inspire you to try something similar.

My journey pulled me into learning the beautiful language of Spanish. As the second most popular language in the world by native speakers, it’s a good choice for a novice. With 485m speakers, even a language-shy Brit like me can find someone to practise with. I’ve always been interested in personal development, but what possessed me to give it a go?

At the time, my father was living in Havana, the capital of Cuba. I’d also made a number of trips to Argentina, and was drawn to the local people and their culture. Something told me I was missing out by not knowing their language, their songs, their literature.

Step by step I walked into a world I’d never seen coming. It’s literally changed my mind, as all the research into language-learning shows us. I’m more confident, a better listener, a better communicator. Given that most of my work is 1:1, that’s priceless. I think my memory is also sharper, as my brain has to work hard to recall new, unfamiliar words. 

During the pandemic I was able to study with a teacher I’d met in Buenos Aires, Maria Trubba. Maria is a former international tango dancer and teacher. Luckily for her sanity we’ve focused on Spanish, with two lessons a week for the last three years. (How on earth did we manage in a world before Zoom?) My interest in fitness led me to a fellow porteño, Gustavo Barrios. A boxing trainer, Gustavo is one of the best in Argentina. Each week we meet online to practise both my Spanish and my footwork.

Studying and practising is hard. I’ve learned not to dwell on small mistakes, and to enjoy the process. Being relaxed is important, as is not taking it too seriously. All languages have banana skins you’ll slip on, so you have to get comfortable laughing at yourself. As all my clients and colleagues know, consistency always pays off. My training and military background have helped me stay disciplined. 

During my last trip to Buenos Aires I hosted a 75-minute fitness training workshop with a martial arts instructor. With a little help, I covered most of the session in Spanish. It was a memorable, uplifting experience. Not bad for someone who couldn’t speak a word of the language five years ago.

Enjoying the benefits

I use Spanish every day now. I have many friends here in London and overseas who are Spanish speakers, so I take every opportunity to speak, listen, read and write. I’ve learned that my journey hasn’t just been about knowing how to speak in another tongue. Like the physical workouts for my body, I’m challenging my brain to make it stronger, smarter, and more flexible. The research on languages tells us that:

  • I’m creating and strengthening neural pathways. This is called neuroplasticity, where the brain changes based on new experiences.
  • I’m boosting my memory with new grammar, words, and getting them in the right order (eventually)
  • I’m solving puzzles – it’s tough to understand what others are saying, then figuring out a sensible reply
  • I’m getting better at handling different tasks at once, plate-juggling English and Spanish without mixing them up

Sometimes it’s nice to check progress. So last year I jumped in and took my first language exams in nearly 40 years, at London’s Instituto Cervantes. I feared the oral exam, which lasted for 20 minutes with two examiners. It was intense but I passed and am now at the intermediate level. Next step is the ‘B2 Dele’ level. Passing it would mean my Spanish is ‘proficient’. 

It’s going to be a long time before anyone mistakes me for a local in downtown Buenos Aires. But I’m here for the journey.

Find out more:

Not everyone is lucky enough to find such great teachers as Maria and Gustavo. But if you’re interested in learning a language, here are some tools and ideas to get started:

  • Enjoy podcasts like this one from Duolingo
  • Search for a personal language tutor using Preply
  • Try language-learning apps like Duolingo, Memrise, and Babbel. These use games to make learning less formal and more fun. 
  • Use TV platforms like Netflix to watch foreign-language movies or shows with subtitles.
  • Go to websites like FluentU, which use real-world videos such as movie trailers and inspiring talks 
  • Be brave and find a language exchange Meetup where you can practise 

How learning a new language changes your brain

The smart idea that went global.

By Blog

Let’s imagine you’re in charge of a body like Sport England. You have tens of millions of pounds from the lottery each year. It’s your job to spend this on grassroots sport, so that more people benefit from physical activity. What would you do with the money? Are you sure it would work?

It’s a hard question. And it reminds me that successful ventures aren’t always top-down and big-budget, run from the centre. Sometimes the best enterprises are run by enthusiasts who are driven to get things done. 

This blog is about one of those – parkrun. In particular, I’ve always been interested to see how parkrun releases something extra from everyone involved. Staff, spectators and volunteers all seem to happily put in more time and energy than they’re asked to. Some experts call this ‘discretionary effort’, and it’s worth unlocking whenever you can.

I thought I’d look at how ‘discretionary effort’ comes about. It’s useful to know this if you’ve ever led a team, run an event, or just want to get people to participate in something you’re passionate about. We’ll look at the way parkrun works to make this happen, as its features can be applied to many other times and situations.

People like working together when there are clear benefits and a simple goal. 

I don’t think parkrun would have worked if its plan was to get volunteers out of bed on a wet Saturday morning to build their community. Instead, they set out to build something simple to help people run 5k. That proved to be clear and appealing to enough people across the UK to make it work. The togetherness, neighbourhood-building and mental health benefits all follow from people being passionate about running, jogging and walking.

Consistency is important. 

Despite being run by volunteers and taking place in hundreds of different places, every parkrun worldwide feels the same. It doesn’t matter where you are or which week you turn up. This helps people find a routine around the event that works for them. It includes simple things like when to get up, how you get there and who to meet afterwards. 

When something becomes typical within a routine, it’s never as tough as we first thought. Even that first daunting 5k. So parkrun drives repeat activity quickly as it’s something that doesn’t need lots of decisions. It appeals to our personal autopilots.

Make the barriers to entry really low. 

The parkrun message is “come and join us at 9am.” All you have to do beforehand is register on their website. It’s free, so you don’t need to set up a direct debit. You don’t need to run with coins or a card. Your running gear doesn’t matter, as hardly anyone has the latest trainers. It’s just not the vibe.

All this reduces friction and makes it more likely that people turn up and get involved. If people want to run, they can just run. Some have milestone T-shirts for doing 10, 50, or more runs. But this doesn’t depend on whether they have volunteered or not. There’s no sense of pressure or obligation to do more if they don’t want to. This has helped keep parkrun welcoming.

Spread leadership among those around you.

Each parkrun relies on a volunteer team to make it happen. Bushy Park in London is the biggest UK parkrun and often welcomes over a thousand runners – that needs over fifty volunteers. They range from those marshalling the course to timekeepers and ‘tail-runners’ (no-one finishes last at parkrun). All of these are a vital part of the whole, and they spread out the responsibilities. In this way, parkrun is actively building leadership, encouraging people to get involved and own their local event. 

This approach doesn’t need a leadership team for each run location. The roles are clear, so volunteers can learn quickly and jump in and out of different things. There’s always someone to help, and no real hierarchy. 

Design the principles and stick to them.

Given the success of parkrun, it’s easy to take it for granted. To think that it was just waiting to happen, or that anyone could have done it. But that’s not true. This is something which has become a massive public health success, but began with one starter event that snowballed. Governments could learn.

The parkrun team agreed on some core principles and made clear decisions about how their organisation would work. They stuck to their guns on never charging people to take part – even when a local council made that difficult. Keeping parkrun free means they always feel open and available to everyone, in every community.

The last words 

If you want to increase engagement and unlock the discretionary effort in your team, parkrun provides valuable insights. Whatever your project or initiative, I’m sure there’s something we can learn from how they do things. Remember too that the most successful public health initiative in the last twenty years started with a group of friends running around their local park. It’s enough to make you wonder if anything is possible.

About parkrun

Back in 2004, an accomplished runner called Paul Sinton-Hewitt organised a run in London’s Bushy Park. He was injured and had recently lost his job. As much as anything, he wanted an opportunity to meet up and chat. Thirteen runners turned up, mostly friends. It was the first ever parkrun.

Paul’s idea was to support participation, so parkrun has never been a race. In fact, average finish times have become slower over the years as a wider cross-section of people have joined in. It now has a home in thousands of locations in dozens of countries, attracting walkers and runners from the age of four upwards. It remains entirely free, staffed by dedicated, selfless volunteers. For many thousands of people, it’s become a keystone habit in looking after their physical and mental health.

Learning from the siege-breaker

By Blog

Working as a personal trainer, one of the first things I learnt was the importance of communication and empathy. When a decision to change has already been made, conversations with clients are straightforward. Next steps can flow quickly, as we uncover motivations and agree goals. If we can set a goal, then we can make an effective plan.

But sometimes you’re in a situation where views clash. How do we start the conversation then, and work together? 

As COVID struck last year I was fortunate to find inspiration in the work of Chris Voss, a former lead hostage negotiator and siege-breaker for the FBI. He now teaches people and organisations how to avoid conflict and reach better agreements. 

Developing some new rules

Chris writes about how the early 1970s saw a number of kidnappings end with tragic consequences. One in particular, the Downs Airline hijacking, led to a US law that changed the landscape for negotiators forever. Old-school use of force went out the window, and the FBI started to develop the techniques we see today. 

The new style hinged on the principle that siege-like hijackings are more about emotions than rational bargaining. It’s often fruitless to ‘play hardball’ or use ‘good cop, bad cop.’ Instead, rapport must be built – the FBI called it ‘trust-based influence’.

The wrong way to manage conflict

Many of us have an upside-down view of negotiation. From Hollywood films and TV shows, we’re fed the idea that it’s all about strength and sticking to your guns. In this way of thinking, being flexible or agreeing to an adversary’s wishes is seen as weakness. But reaching a lasting agreement or managing conflict actually needs plenty of sensitivity. It relies on understanding someone else’s motives and emotions.

Tactical empathy

The best negotiators rely on emotional intelligence to win deals and improve relationships. This is one of the key things that experts like Chris Voss teach us. He invented the phrase ‘tactical empathy’ to describe how to work with your counterpart’s emotions. Building it into your negotiating style will help you get better results, whether it’s in a business deal or a family debate about how to eat more healthily.

You can also think of tactical empathy as taking a stock-check from the person you’re talking to. What do they like or dislike about an idea, and why? Is that everything? Understand this and play it back to them, calmly. You can understand their points without necessarily agreeing with them.

After all, we all hold different views of any situation we are trying to address, and often have different information. Think of the situation as the adversary, not your counterpart. Instead, you’ll work together with them to find a shared solution.

Using tactical empathy in your negotiations

There are many things in the ‘tactical empathy’ toolbox. All of them will build good faith and give the other person a sense of control. The goal is to identify what they actually need and get them feeling safe enough to talk, talk and talk some more.

Here are five that can be used in everyday communication:

Focus only on the other person and what they have to say. Good listening is not a passive activity, and needs concentration. When you have a response, ask a simple question to confirm and then wait. Use active listening followed by dynamic silence – it builds rapport, too. It isn’t only the voice we should think about. Be sure to follow gestures, the use of hands, body and facial expression. They’re there to overcome barriers, like impaired hearing and lack of a common language. In these situations, if you are not observing and paying very close attention then their message will be lost.

Start out with a mindset of discovery. At the beginning, your goal is to find out as much information as possible. Assume you know very little. Chris Voss says that really smart people are sometimes poor negotiators because they don’t think they have anything to learn.

Label emotions – don’t suppress them. When you spot someone’s feelings, find the word and respectfully repeat it back to them. “It sounds like this has made you feel frustrated…”. This is called labeling, and it’s a great way to improve your listening. There is no way to cut people’s feelings out of the process, so it’s foolish to try. 

Use calibrated questions. These begin with ‘How?’ or ‘What?’ and they are valuable for two reasons. First, they avoid the yes/no answers that give you little extra information. Second, they force your counterpart to help think about your problems in a co-operative way. For example, “What else would you be able to offer to make that work for me?”

Stay humble. Remember that we all hold different views of the same problem. And we often have different information, too. If at least one of you has the humility to know this, you’ll likely have a good outcome. Great negotiation is about great collaboration and creating influence based on trust.

Tactical empathy works for an age-old reason. We are complicated creatures, and at root always an animal. Whatever our age, background, education or outlook, we first act from our fears, needs, and desires. This is our limbic system kicking in, the part of the brain involved in our  behavioural and emotional responses. 

Plugging into this system has always worked better than appeals to our reason, and probably always will. So try to magnify those positive emotions. After all, people are smarter when they’re in a positive frame of mind – and so are you.

Learn more

Video: Never Split The Difference

Book: Never Split the Difference

When it’s hard to be a Jedi master

By Blog

It’s not every day you learn a lesson from a Post-it note and a retired US Navy commander. But it happened to me last week. It’s a tale of leadership, and how to create places where everyone is thinking and engaged. That’s valuable in the military or the workplace, but it also has lessons for any group you’re involved in.

The Post-it that drew me in comes from the ever-wonderful Sketchplanations website. The image and caption made me stop and think:

“Bosses push information up to authority. Leaders push authority down to information.”

We’d all rather be called a leader than a boss, and most of us have some kind of leadership challenge in our lives. So I dug further to find that these were the words of a naval man called David Marquet. Twenty years ago, he ran an interesting social experiment. 

The boss who knew everything

In the 1990s, Marquet was living his dream. After years at the Naval Academy he was now the captain of a nuclear submarine, the USS Olympia. For a whole year, he went back to school to learn about the ship. He memorised the wiring, the piping, how the pumps worked. He read about the crew and knew how they dealt with problems. He knew more about the submarine than anyone ever had, and was ready to give all the orders. Then something changed. 

The fleet had another submarine, USS Santa Fe. It was the runt of the litter, with poor morale and performance. Other submariners knew it was the sub that never put to sea on time and couldn’t keep hold of its crew. When its captain resigned, Marquet was asked to step in – at two weeks’ notice. The USS Santa Fe was a very different type of submarine. What use was Marquet’s hard-won knowledge now?

His studying was now irrelevant. He couldn’t be the know-all leader he’d trained to be because he didn’t know it all. He couldn’t hide. After all, in a submarine, no-one is ever more than 200 feet away from the boss, day or night. 

Around the same time, he’d started to question what he knew about leadership. His textbooks said it was ‘directing the thoughts, plans and actions of others.’ But he knew there was only one Obi Wan-kenobi, and that the rest of us can’t decide what other people think. In a world where he was no longer the know-all, he needed a new approach.

One event really brought this home. It was an exercise where the crew pretend the reactor is broken. They must power the ship on batteries – a bit like running a car on an electric toothbrush. When they shut down the reactor there’s a race. Can the crew solve the problem before the battery is drained? 

During the exercise, Marquet asked an officer to speed up, using the battery faster. The order was passed on, but the speed stayed the same. A young crew member explained that, unlike other classes of submarine, theirs had only one speed under battery power. Marquet asked the officer if he’d known this. Yes, he had. So why had he passed on the order? “Because you told me to.”

Marquet realised that they were in a bad way. His lack of knowledge did not mix well with a crew that expected to follow orders. On a nuclear submarine, that was risky. At a meeting, he said that he’d trained for a different ship and needed them to be more proactive.

A young sailor chipped in. “No captain, it’s you. You need to be quiet.”

These days Marquet jokes that “perhaps this kid hadn’t seen too many submarine movies.” But an inner voice made him give it a try. He told the crew that (bar launching a missile) he was never going to give another order on this ship. He didn’t know what it was going to look like, or how it was going to work.

Pushing authority down

Marquet soon saw the advantages in working this way. He looked for more opportunities to push authority down to those with the best information. To apply for vacation leave, for example, a submariner had to use a form that went through six levels of sign-off. Yet his team leader was clearly the best-placed person to manage this. Empowering the crew to own more decisions was a great way to flatten the hierarchy and get stuff done.

How language changes culture

For their part the crew agreed to stop bringing the captain problems without solutions. They stopped saying “I recommend…” or “I’m thinking about doing this”. They switched to “I intend to…” and Marquet would nod and ask questions.

He realised how important language was in changing his crew’s culture. In a debrief after a fire drill he noticed a pattern in people’s responses. He was told that ‘they’ “didn’t pressurise the hose” or “were too slow.” Even among a hundred submariners, a ‘them and us’ tension had developed. Marquet fixed this with an easy-to-remember rhyme – “There’s no ‘they’ on the Santa Fe.”

One day an engineer came up to him with some bad news. He was about to explain that a pump repair would be delayed because the supply team ordered the wrong part. But he remembered he couldn’t say ‘they’. ‘They’ had to be replaced by ‘we’. And by saying ‘we’, the crew re-wired their brains. They started thinking of each other as one team, with no boundaries.

What happened?

David Marquest says it took him 10 years to figure out what really happened on the USS Santa Fe. He sums it up by saying they created leaders. Officer after officer was promoted to command their own ship. Inspections reported that the crew had the most powerful culture of teamwork ever seen in the US Navy. One year, 35 out of 35 submariners re-enlisted, when once it had been just three. 

What can we learn?

For me, Marquet’s experiment is a classic case study in teamwork, culture and motivation. You may think you can control people, but this is a short-term fix. To really succeed, you must be happy saying, “I don’t know.” You need to build leaders around you – so their skills and energy can be applied to their workplaces, families, schools and communities. You have to create an environment where people can do what’s needed, without being told.  

Learn more:

Sketchplanations – push authority to information

Book: Turn the ship around

Video: Turn the ship around

Video: What is leadership?

How to stay healthy from the inside

By Blog

Nearly 2,500 years ago, a wise Greek man died in old age. He was at least 80 years old, perhaps even 100. We can’t be sure. But we know that Hippocrates, the father of medicine, thought deeply about health and wellbeing. He advised others to, “Leave your drugs in the chemist’s pot if you can heal the patient with food.” These days, we’re beginning to realise just how profound this guidance might be.

Hippocrates believed that all disease began in the gut. Could he be right? To find out, we need to learn more about microbes, the tiny living things that are all around us. The most common types are bacteria, viruses and fungi. These microbes are too small to be seen by the naked eye, but they’re powerful when they get together. Our bodies contain around 100 trillion of them. Yes, trillion. Some microbes (less than 5%) make us sick, but most are important for keeping us well. 

Listen to those gut feelings

Modern techniques are revealing that the microbes in our guts may be as important as Hippocrates suspected. Perhaps deep down we’ve known this all along. All of us have experienced butterflies in our stomach before an important event. We talk about gut reactions and gut feelings. Boxers show gutsy behaviour and sometimes we all have to make a gut-wrenching decision. In our culture, there’s a relationship between the gut and our moods that’s been around long before we had electron microscopes. 

The organ you didn’t know you had

Experts call the gang of microbes in our digestive system the ‘gut microbiome’. Many even think of the microbiome as an organ in its own right. That’s partly because it contains as many cells as there are in your own body. It’s also because they’re vital for managing many aspects of your health, including your digestion and immune system. A poor balance of unhealthy and healthy microbes will push you towards gaining weight, high blood sugar, and high cholesterol.

So what can we do to improve our own gut microbiome? I’ve listed some tips below. But keep in mind that this is a new and complicated subject. Much of our knowledge is based on research that was made possible only after the human genome project, which was completed less than twenty years ago. 

These new methods allowed scientists to study which microbes we have inside us, and what they do. They began to see that some could be linked to conditions such as obesity, type 2 diabetes, and even neurodegenerative diseases like Parkinson’s. They also learned that we each have a microbiome that’s unique – like a fingerprint. So much more research is needed to understand its role in keeping us healthy.

Tips for eating well

By now you know that eating isn’t just fuel for your own body. It also feeds the trillions of bacteria that live in your gut. Everyone’s microbiome is different, but if you want to improve your digestion, lose body fat, or look after your general health, try these tips:

Increase your range of foods

There are countless species of useful bacteria in your gut microbiome. Each needs different nutrients, so be good to them all by choosing different types of food. Next time you’re shopping, seek out something new you’ve never tried. Try to steer away from the typical modern Western diet, as it leans towards fat and sugar. 

Eat lots of vegetables, legumes, beans and fruit

All of these are high in fibre. While you can’t digest it, fibre will stimulate the growth of healthy bacteria in your gut. Foods that are good for this include:

  • Artichokes
  • Beans (kidney, pinto, white, black and red)
  • Broccoli
  • Chickpeas
  • Green peas
  • Lentils
  • Raspberries
  • Whole grains

Experiment with fermented foods

These foods are altered by microbes before they reach you. Bacteria or yeasts have been used to convert sugars in the food to acids or alcohol. Some exotic-sounding examples include:

  • Kefir – a cultured, fermented milk drink
  • Kimchi – pickled vegetables
  • Kombucha – a fermented, sweetened black or green tea
  • Sauerkraut – finely cut raw cabbage
  • Tempeh – a source of protein, made from soybeans

Many of these foods are rich in lactobacilli, a ‘good’ type of bacteria. It’s not certain these bacteria reach the gut, but, in countries where these foods are common, people appear to have less bowel disease. Some kinds of yogurt may also help people with irritable bowel syndrome, but stick to plain, natural versions.

Go for whole grains

Whole grains contain lots of fibre and carbs you can’t digest. So they’re not absorbed in the small intestine and instead make their way to the large intestine. Once there, they promote the growth of beneficial bacteria. As a bonus, they also help you to feel fuller for longer.

Seek out polyphenols

These are plant compounds that help reduce blood pressure, inflammation and cholesterol. We absorb them inefficiently, so most end up being digested by our gut bacteria. Good sources include:

  • Almonds
  • Blueberries
  • Broccoli
  • Cocoa and dark chocolate
  • Grape skins
  • Green tea
  • Onions
  • Red wine

Choose extra-virgin olive oil over other fats if you can, as it contains more polyphenols.


If you thought bacteria were the bad guys, I hope this has made you think again. Along with other microbes, they’re often thought of as sources of disease. But in fact many play an essential role in keeping you healthy. Look after them by choosing a range of fresh, whole foods like fruits, veggies, legumes, beans and whole grains. And treat the little fellows with respect. At 3.5 billion years old, they’re the world’s oldest resident. So they’ve earned it.

Learn more:

Blog: How to escape the shops with a healthy trolley

Blog: Healthy eating for children