Find Common Ground
Good conversations are built on mutual interests. So beat around the topical bush until you happen upon something that your new acquaintance is enthusiastic about. A good place to start: Ask who or what brought them to the party. Chances are the two of you have a friend in in common (like the host). Talk about that person. Tell a story about him or her. Self-deprecating ones work especially well.
Unless it's clear you agree about them.
Here’s a not-so-secret thing we believe to be true of humans: they like talking about themselves. Most people will boast — wittingly or not — when given the opportunity. So if your new friend starts babbling on about the deal he's about to close or the incredible sand save he made on the 17th last week, ask him about those things. Don’t know what the hell he’s talking about? Even better. You’ll learn something.
Know One Good Joke
Here's one: A Buddhist walks up to a hot dog stand and says, "Make me one with everything." Here's another: The Buddhist asks for his change. The hot dog vendor says, "Change comes from within."
“God gave you two ears and one mouth for a reason,” they say. Being a good listener — well, playing the part of a good listener, at least — is easier than you think. We like to keep TED Talk alum Julian Treasure’s RASA Method top of mind: Receive, Appreciate, Summarize, Ask. Not only will vocal reinforcement remind your company that you’re engaged, it’ll also force you to stay engaged.
Depart With Grace
Are you ready to be done with this conversation? That's fine. Just don't be rude about it. Step 1: Wait for a lull (an exaggerated "So," "Well," "Anyway," etc.). Step 2: Know your next objective (whether real or fabricated) and announce it: "It's been great talking with you, Tim, but I've gotta ask Vicky about our kids' carpool before she takes off." Smile, shake hands and head off with purpose.