Career advice--

by Rosa Chillis on March 21, 2014
Republished on January 19, 2017

5 Things You Can Learn About Nonverbal Communication from Sherlock Holmes

Sherlock Holmes was the fictional detective created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930), Scottish physician and writer. In all of his adventures Holmes was brilliant and had extraordinary powers of deduction. He said the way to understand people is to watch them—not only to see, but also to observe.

I’ve discussed the characteristics of nonverbal communication in several earlier articles. Why’s this an important topic? Because you are mostly judged and defined in all situations—business and social-- not by what you say but what you do. In fact, some social scientists estimate that nonverbal behaviors account for 65% -93% of the total meaning of communication.

What exactly is nonverbal communication? The most accurate definition is “without the use of spoken language.” Nonverbal communication includes not only gestures, but posture, pauses, tone of voice, volume, and accent; also personal objects such as jewelry, and physical attractiveness, and facial expressions.

Consider some additional examples of wordless messages:
1) Clothing
2) Grooming
3) Food products
4) Colors
5) Aromas
6) Hairstyle
7) Displays at the conference table

Everything you do communicates something about you. If you tried not to communicate any messages at all, this effort would in itself communicate something about you. It is impossible to “not” communicate. Even silence is a nonverbal behavior which can communicate a powerful message.

Sherlock Holmes said the way to understand people is to watch them—to observe them.

This article is about 5 things you can learn about the characteristics and forms of nonverbal communication to help you understand yourself and others, as skill in this area can advance your career; good nonverbal communicators improve their personal and business effectiveness.

Stop for a moment and notice what are you doing as you read this article? Are you at your desk? If so, are you sitting erect or slumped over? Are you dozing off or are you alert? If someone walked in, what nonverbal cues would that person get about how you are feeling? What about your facial expression?

In fact, did you know that the face is our most intricate messenger and it alone is capable of more than a thousand distinct expressions?!

Holmes did not just watch people but observed them. To observe means to pay attention; this ability can be an invaluable tool. You will have the ability to pick up on to subtle cues during sales meetings, conversations, job interviews, presentations, and anywhere else so you can react to situations with skill and tact.

So I invite you to develop these 5 Sherlock Holmes-like powers of observation related to nonverbal communication and thus improve your own ability to communicate effectively.

1. Pay attention to nonverbal signals: body posture can signal all sorts of things. For instance, crossed arms and looking downward could be saying, “Don’t bother me.” And this is the posture you’d want to assume if you don’t want to be called on in school or in the staff meeting!
2. Read voices: it’s not so much what people say, but how they say it. In addition to listening to the words, pay close attention to tone, pitch, and inflection, which can indicate, nervousness, anger, sarcasm, or confidence.
3. Look for inconsistencies: is the person saying one thing in words and their body language something else? For example, are they telling you how satisfied they with their situation while frowning and looking off into the distance; do the words match up?
4. Use good eye contact (“the mirrors of the soul”): this is an especially important type of nonverbal communication. This does not mean to stare, but the way you look at someone can denote interest or hostility; it can also help to maintain the flow of conversation. When observing others, you can tell a lot about the relationship between people if they are maintaining or avoiding eye contact.
5. Listen to artifacts: personal objects announce identities. For example, I read this cartoon where the president of a company says, “I suggest you get yourself a real briefcase, Miller. A tote bag just doesn’t say vice president.” Yes, you craft your image by how you dress and what objects you carry and use. Artifacts communicate a particular image to others. Do you have jewelry or clothes that reflect your ethnic identity? What about body piercing or tattoos? People use artifacts to express their identity.

To once again quote Sherlock Holmes: “You see, but you do not observe. The distinction is clear.” If you want to improve your own nonverbal communication ability, get in the habit of studying people. Learn to read body language and balance body language with facts. Pay attention to artifacts and identity. Be more like Sherlock Holmes and improve your powers of observation.

p.s. If you’re a teacher, speak boldly and with self-assurance with these T-shirts:

Author's Bio: 


Rosa Chillis is the author of four e-books. Her latest is titled Misery at Work? 7 Practical Ideas that Lead to Success and Contentment in Your Job (2015).

Chillis has instructed voice and articulation, oral communication, and communication skills at various colleges and universities. She holds a master’s degree in instructional technology and certification as a Global Career Development Facilitator (GCDF). As a GCDF, she has helped individuals to understand and assess their talents, strengths, and skills. Her objective: to ensure her clients have the self-knowledge, self-confidence, and tools to actively manage their own career change or job search and thus become as independent as possible.

Chillis is currently the president of Adasane & Associates, Inc., which specializes in personal growth writing and publishing.

Reach her at:

Or email her at: