Protein-protein association generally proceeds via the intermediary of a transient, lowly populated, encounter complex ensemble. The mechanism whereby the interacting molecules in this ensemble locate their final stereospecific structure is poorly understood. Further, a fundamental question is whether the encounter complex ensemble is an effectively homogeneous population of nonspecific complexes or whether it comprises a set of distinct structural and thermodynamic states. Here we use intermolecular paramagnetic relaxation enhancement (PRE), a technique that is exquisitely sensitive to lowly populated states in the fast exchange regime, to characterize the mechanistic details of the transient encounter complex interactions between the N-terminal domain of Enzyme I (EIN) and the histidine-containing phosphocarrier protein (HPr), two major bacterial signaling proteins. Experiments were conducted at an ionic strength of 150 mM NaCl to eliminate any spurious nonspecific associations not relevant under physiological conditions. By monitoring the dependence of the intermolecular transverse PRE (Gamma(2)) rates measured on (15)N-labeled EIN on the concentration of paramagnetically labeled HPr, two distinct types of encounter complex configurations along the association pathway are identified and dissected. The first class, which is in equilibrium with and sterically occluded by the specific complex, probably involves rigid body rotations and small translations near or at the active site. In contrast, the second class of encounter complex configurations can coexist with the specific complex to form a ternary complex ensemble, which may help EIN compete with other HPr binding partners in vivo by increasing the effective local concentration of HPr even when the active site of EIN is occupied.