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Start with the Host

Chances are you actually do know at least one person in the room: the one who invited you. The thing is, though, she's probably also the host, and is busy opening the door or refilling the chip bowl. Susan Scott, author and executive coach, says it's fine to spend a few minutes catching up with whoever's throwing the party, thanking her for inviting you and asking if you can help with anything. But you don't want to monopolize her time, so after a few minutes, ask if there's anyone she thinks you should meet. And then just take the plunge and start mingling, either by seeking out the people the host suggests, or anyone else who seems friendly.

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Think "I'm Being Artful" Instead of "I Feel Awkward"

It can be intimidating to break into a conversation that's already going on, but Scott encourages you to relax and (gracefully) jump in. Unless the people are having what appears to be an intense conversation, it's perfectly okay to walk over and say, "May I join you?" They're at a party, after all—it's not a private dinner for two you're encroaching on. (And yes, we'll admit it's easier if the people you approach are turned to face the room and smiling.) You can briefly introduce yourself, and then say something like, "Please, continue your conversation." Then, when you have something to contribute, speak right up.

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Respond Beyond "Fine, Thanks"

Most of us are in the habit of answering "How are you?" with some variation of "I'm fine," especially when it comes to small talk with strangers. Yet Scott says that type of auto-response is often a conversation ender. Instead, she suggests answering with what's really on your mind—with a bit of editing to give the conversation somewhere to go. You could say something like, "I'm good. I'm trying to decide what color to paint my living room. I like what Kate's done here, but I'm not sure if it would work in my space. Got any ideas for me?" Or you could go in a different direction, with something like, "I'm okay. I think I made a mistake at work today, though, and, well, I'm a little worried about it." Maybe they'll say, "What happened?" And you could end up getting some great advice, or at least feel better after talking about it.

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Actively Listen

You're seated next to two strangers at dinner. The easy way to kick off a conversation with either of them is to ask how they know the host. But here's the important part: Scott says you must really listen to their answer. Maybe they'll say, "We work together." Instead of just replying with, "Oh, okay," probe a little deeper. You could say, "That's great! So what's happening in the world of real estate these days?" or ask how long they've been in the field and how they got into it. Act genuinely interested, and you'll probably wind up having a fantastic conversation.