Living in Podcastville can be educational, enlightening, and at the least, entertaining. A couple of my favorite lifestyle podcasts are offered by and feature Oprah. You may or may not be a fan. But I have to say that she is still an inspiration to a huge audience, with whom she continues to provide access to remarkable and famous guests, to create ultra-generous giveaways (“give-o-ways”, to be exact) and to candidly reveal her own prickly issues and resulting growth, including how-to’s and atta-girl’s for her avid followers.

During an introduction to one of her current podcasts, this remarkable entrepreneur assures that what most people want is to be heard. “Can you hear me?” she says, before launching into another motivating episode.

She has a point. According to Tony Buzan, author of The Power of Social Intelligence, we spend 50 to 80 percent of our waking life communicating with others. But when in conversation, how well do we really listen? Often, not very. While chatting, people tend to keep talking when they should be listening. When the opportunity to listen arises, their minds are elsewhere – “Will the babysitter be late again?” “Will this stoplight ever turn green?” “I wish I’d eaten breakfast.” “Crap, I forgot my eyeshadow.” “Will this guy ever shut up?”

Perhaps they’re thinking of what they’ll say next or of adding an anecdote of their own. A “bad” listener may be trying to multitask while having a conversation (actually, few people can accomplish this adeptly, even if they think they can), allowing themselves to become distracted by a speaker’s mannerisms or speech pattern, concentrating on background activities instead of on the conversation at hand, or pretending to be absorbed when they’re not. You likely have experienced at least a few of these both as speaker and listener.

Obviously, that’s nothing new. Back in the 1400s to 1500s, early Renaissance man Leonardo da Vinci proclaimed that “Most people listen without hearing.”

Listening is the point emphasized in Dr. John Gray’s 1990s runaway best seller, Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus, listed by USA Today as one of its top 10 most influential books of the last quarter century. There’s no telling how many relationships his advice has saved through teaching understanding of communication pattern differences between men and women. Stopping to really listen and consider the male versus female pattern of relating, and finally to respond with awareness of those disparaties can ease emotion in a potentially dicey situation.

Attending a John Gray workshop kept my brother’s once-bumpy marriage intact once he understood his and his wife’s differing communication styles.

Being aware and present is without a doubt the first step in becoming a better listener and the practice of meditation can facilitate the process. In a recent podcast of the NPR show, “On Being”, host Krista Tippett spoke with Stephen Batchelor, author of The Art of Solitude. Meditation, he says, is all about listening, on an inner and an outer level.

“Outside noise, be it traffic or dogs barking, need not be a distraction,” Batchelor says. “We listen with our ears and mind. When we get distracted, we can simply return to the rhythm of our breathing and thus into focus.”

This procedure need only take a couple of seconds before we’re back into paying-attention mode and resuming our role as a responsive listener.

Listening well is a vital part of a successful, productive and interesting conversation. It shows the speaker you’re right with him and allows him to open up more. As a travel writer, I’ve initiated hundreds of interviews with all sorts and conditions of folks, most of whom I’d never met previously. Early on, I discovered a few things that help an interview go smoothly and result in great quotes for a story. Those same tips apply to a chat with a friend.

Make eye contact with the speaker throughout the conversation. Don’t stare them down like a vampire, but show your interest with a warm glance from time to time. Remember Oprah’s question: “Can you hear me?” Engaging visually assures that you do.

Once you’ve established your role as listener, when there’s a lull in the conversation, encourage the speaker to continue by asking such questions as “Is that right?” “Really?” and even “Hmm” to show you’re attentive and want to know more. Many people will roll right ahead with only a rudimentary prompt or two.

To encourage a speaker to continue, ask pertinent questions about what she has just said, not necessarily those that require only a yes or no answer.

Did you know that your brain can think at 4 to 10 times the speed of speech? So when you’re listening, you have all that extra “brain time” to “think on your feet.” Use it to listen to any between-the-lines meaning.

Be aware of the other person’s body language, i.e. posture, eye contact and hand movements. This allows you to listen to what they feel as well as what they say. Your own body language can set the tone of a conversation. Even if you’re bored, rev up your energy and look interested, and your speaker will become more interesting to you. If you act uninterested, that’s exactly what will come back to you from the other person.

This may be a tough one, especially during these volatile times, but don’t judge or criticize what the speaker is saying. While you’re listening, keep an open mind. Watch out for any words or ideas that may be emotional triggers for you. You can only do this if you’re aware and awake. Let the speaker complete her thoughts and don’t just jump in swinging. Who only knows what knowledge you may acquire?

After a presidential election a few years back, the candidate of my choice did not win, and I was curious as to why so many voters backed the other guy. Following that curiosity one morning, I spied a woman who sported a campaign button for “the other side.” After exchanging a polite Southern “Good Morning,” I decided to explore and asked why she’d voted as she did, that I was simply interested to know more about our country’s new CEO. And for the following 20 minutes, she enthusiastically told me, and to my surprise, I found her reasoning solid. I didn’t add my own political views because I honestly wanted to hear the motivation behind her choice, and kept encouraging her to continue, with prompts and questions. I left the conversation more informed from listening.

Oddly enough, becoming a good listener can take a bit of practice. When you’re outside walking, tune in to the different sounds around you. Then try to focus on only one – say, birdsongs – and tune out all the others. The more you do this, the more adept you’ll become. So when you’re engaged in conversation, you’ll be better able to tune out distractions and concentrate on the subject at hand.

Hearing is the act of words and sounds entering your ears. Listening happens when you allow words to penetrate your heart to discover their true meaning and intent. Words that enter the ear only flash for a minute and disappear, while words that touch the heart create an experience that can change a life.

Says Sura Hart, internationally-known trainer for the Center for Nonviolent Communication, “Listening is an attitude of the heart, a genuine desire to be with another which both attracts and heals.”

Listen from your heart and you’ll understand exactly what she means.