In the interest of finding out more about the individual, I try to find out what they do for a living and then follow up with asking them how they decided to go into that line of work. Was it a burning desire from childhood? Is it just a waystation on the journey to something else? Is it just a way to pay for their rent/mortgage and the things that are really important to them in life. Do they have a long-term dream they're working toward?
I ask about their family relationships; parents, siblings, children, pets, etc. because their responses are meaningful in the context of any relationship.
Discussing their interests outside of work is key because that is sometimes where their real passion lies.
Of course, you can always ask them what makes them wonderful, what their friends would say about them if you asked, what their superhero name would be, etc.
I like to approach a conversation with the whole getting to know thier background as indepth as I can but for a general theme, I prefer to get into the philosophical, gives me an idea on how they think and what not.
yea sometimes in conversations an awkward lull can happen... maybe you haven't found the right person to chat with... or maybe your just new to the whole thing. (Or they are too).. Just speak whatever is on your mind... or if you really want to give this guy/gal a shot... just keep the conversation going... I personally like to think up odd questions.. just to see how the respond... and see how their mind "ticks"
Example: "What is the first think you do when you wake up?"
"If you were a bird.. what kind would you be?"
"What nickname do you wish people would call you?"
"Did you know the "crying litter Indian" was actually Italian?"
As far as whats safe to talk about.. each person is different.. dip your toe in and feel around before you jump.
If it is a subject on the LargeFriends forum, then my answer would be what people look for in a mate and if they would consider being in a relationship with someone who was not their "type"?
If it is a conversation with someone that I have just met and am trying to get to know, I always want to know about their family. I tend to pay attention to how they talk about their family because I think that it is a good gauge to find out how they might be in a relationship. It isn't a tool that is 100% perfect, but I am usually right about my assessment of the person.