Want to be a better leader? Try improving your vocabulary.

No, I’m not talking adding the latest management and leadership buzzwords or jargon to your repertoire. If that’s what you’re looking for, try the Wall Street Journal’s Business Buzzwords Generator. You’ll be able to walk around uttering leadership gibberish such as “Moving forward, it’s time to act with strategic vector and transform our team bandwidth” and “Looking forward to 2015, ideation will be key to our ability to impact the solutions holistically.”

I’m talking about adding some powerful phrases to your vocabulary that will engage and motivate, encourage people to come up with ideas, and inspire commitment.

It’s not an exhaustive list – just a collection I’ve picked up over the years – so please feel free to add your own in the comments section.

  1. “How can I be a better leader?” Credit goes to Marshall Goldsmith for this one. Variations of the question include “How can I be a better parent?” “How can I be a better spouse?” and “How can I be a better child?” Just make sure to listen and say …
  2. Thank-you.” Use these two powerful words as a response to constructive feedback (which should be seen as a gift), positive feedback, as a way to express gratitude for going the extra mile or a job well done, or when someone brings bad news or a problem to your attention.
  3. “Nice job.” Variations include “good work” and “way to go.” Giving positive reinforcement becomes even more powerful if when it’s specific, timely, and you can explain why (positive impact), but let’s not over-complicate it too much for now.
  4. What do you think?” Credit goes to Tom Peters for this one. Asking someone for their opinion or ideas is the ultimate demonstration of respect. And when you get those ideas, don’t forget to go back to #2.
  5. “How can I help?” Often used as a way to express support during a development discussion, in problem solving, when someone is going through personal difficulties, or when problems or ideas are brought to your attention.
  6. “What’s possible?” Credit goes to Jack and Carol Weber for teaching me the importance of “possibility thinking.” Instead of coming up with reasons why something won’t work, ask yourself and others “what’s possible”. And if they do come up with examples of how similar ideas have been tried in the past and have not worked, use the phrase “Up until now.”
  7. “I don’t know.” Use this when you truly don’t know the answer to a question or solution to a problem – it demonstrates humility and authenticity. It goes well with “what do you think” as a follow-up.
  8. “Why is that important to you?” This question demonstrates that you care, and you’ll learn a lot about the person’s motivation and values.
  9. “Help me understand.” A much better way to understand someone’s logic, reasoning, feelings, etc… than “really?!” or “seriously?!” or “what the heck are you smoking?!”
  10. “I believe in you.” I may have saved the best for last. What a way to express confidence in someone’s ability or potential!

What would you add to the list?

Dan McCarthy is the director of Executive Development Programs at the University of New Hampshire and runs the Management & Leadership channel of About.com. He writes the award-winning leadership development blog Great Leadership and is consistently ranked as one of the top digital influencers in leadership and talent management. He’s a regular contributor to SmartBrief and a member of the SmartBrief on Workforce Advisory Board. E-mail McCarthy.

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