BACKGROUND The virtual clinical encounter (VCE) may function as an important support for medical students in or prior to clinical practice to train and ease communication and socioemotional interactions with patients. Few studies have however focused on the dynamics of interpersonal behaviors in clinical interviewing with a virtual patient (VP) and the affective responses evoked by such a learning experience. The study was designed to investigate the dynamics and congruence of interpersonal behaviors and socioemotional interaction exhibited during the learning experience in a VCE, and to evaluate which interaction design characteristics contribute most to the behavioral and affective engagement in medical students. METHODS Thirty medical students (sixth semester) participated voluntarily in an exploratory observational study with a highly interactive VP case based on a trustworthy VP encounter with a natural and realistic dialogue interface. Students worked collaboratively in pairs. They were videotaped for further behavioral analysis and self-reported (in both a survey and an interview) their personal opinions, perceptions and attitudes about the VCE. A mixed methods approach was applied. RESULTS All participants demonstrated an adequate, respectful and relevant clinical case management and to obtain psychosocial history. The collaborative workspace played its role and led to dynamic and engaged discussions fostering thus shared understanding. The results suggest that the VCE studied was perceived as a meaningful, intrinsically motivational and activating learning environment, and was found to socially and emotionally engage learners. We also found that VCEs have the potential to support the development of relevant and congruent interpersonal communication skills in trainees. CONCLUSIONS By taking advantage of socioemotional interaction, VCEs promote not only critical reflection skills or strategy-selection skills, but also to develop listening and nonverbal skills, induce self-awareness and target coping behaviours. We believe that, if applied in early medical education, this learning approach may facilitate clinical encounters at an early stage and contribute to responsible clinical decision making.