A good conversation is one of life's great joys! But conversation skills aren't really taught in a formal setting, and not everyone knows how to pick them up. There are few key tenets of good conversation.
The most important part of good conversation is to focus on your partner. Listen, instead of just waiting to speak or planning what you're going to say. Almost anything that someone says can afford opportunities for a clarifying question. Don't worry about how you will be perceived, just listen to your partner with an open mind.
If you don't know the group very well, try to follow the conversation trend rather than change it. Once you're more comfortable, you'll know what the group likes to talk about.
Start a conversation by asking about low-risk topics like hobbies, family, or (depending on the culture) careers. In some cultures, it's considered rude to ask about someone's career before you know a person, because this could be perceived as asking about his/her income. If you find an area that s/he is an expert in, this is a great way for you to learn something new and keep the conversation going.
Ask about a person's opinion. People love to give their opinions! Best restaurant, their review of a recent book or movie, or even what they think about a sports team's performance.
Watch body language. If people start to fidget uncomfortably, it might be time to let someone else talk.
Think of conversation as a game of catch. If someone asks you a question and you answer it, this is analogous to throwing the ball to you and you catching it. You're now holding the ball. You must ask the other person a question in order to continue the game. You can ask the same question s/he asked, or you can choose another one.
Include everyone. This is mostly the responsibility of the host or organizer of the event, but if you notice the conversation is revolving only around travel to Italy, and one person hasn't been to Italy and is therefore left out, then the next topic should include that person: you could ask about his/her travel experiences, or where s/he would like to travel.
Keep an open mind. You don't have to agree in order to appreciate a contrasting opinion. You can ask the person to elaborate, and you may find yourself with a new point of view!
Sweetwater Counseling offers a range of social skill training and a 2-session short course on interpersonal effectiveness. Call for a free consultation by phone!