Business dinners can either be awkward or productive depending on your approach and your conversation skills. There is a certain etiquette that when used at business dinners makes the entire experience better for everyone, while allowing the underlying subject of the meeting to break through.
Perhaps the best way to ensure that the business conversation doesn't die an ugly death is to prepare yourself for the engagement by performing a little research. Do your due diligence and investigate the dinner attendees online. Check out their personal and professional profiles and look for shared experiences, likes and dislikes and anything that can be translated into good dinner conversation. Understanding who your fellow diners are and what they're interested in can help prevent awkward silences and inappropriate topics.
In most cases the best approach involves a bit of table setting before getting to the main conversational course. You may wish to start things off with a suggestive comment or line of questioning that gets people talking and interacting in ways that typical banter may not. Try something completely unrelated to the business at hand so your guests are caught off guard but can't help but join in. For example, get a bit personal with your guests by asking why they prefer the foods they eat, or what is most important in their lives.
According to the old adage, avoid religion and politics in conversation at all costs. Professional networking expert Sunny Bates disagrees. She feels that conflict and passion are important ingredients for any successful conversation since they reveal the real person beneath and can help break down barriers that otherwise inhibit real interaction. Susan Krauss Whitbourne, a professor of psychology at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst also feels that debate has its place in conversation, as long as you never assume everyone else at the table feels the same way you do. Avoid cliques, but listen and engage in a bit of give-and-take instead.
If the business dinner was your doing, you should feel free to discuss the business topic that brought you together with your guests. Rather than jump right in as you would in a meeting, allow the topic to develop over time so that you are not left with everything settled and a long meal to endure in silence. If the meal is informal, dive into your business topics once you've placed the order for the table. If you have arranged a longer, more formal meal, consider waiting until the main course is served to go make the switch from casual conversation to a business discussion.